The swimming pool, symbol of Southern California, takes a dip

A couple of weeks ago, I hiked into a remote patch of the Mojave Desert hoping to experience a newly installed piece of experimental art.

Instead, I met a pool guy named Robert.

To be fair, I’d been warned that Robert might be there. (And the hike was very short.) My destination was “Social Pool,” an installation in the form of a white, covered swimming pool by an artist named Alfredo Barsuglia. Sunk into the desert floor in the southern Mojave, it’s 5 feet deep and measures a modest 11 feet by 5 feet.

Reaching “Social Pool” requires some of the map-tending detective work that is central to much of the land art that inspired it, including influential (and remote) pieces from the 1970s by Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Nancy Holt and Walter de Maria.

First, you visit the MAK Center in West Hollywood, which sponsored the piece. There you pick up both a key to the pool’s cover and instructions, complete with GPS coordinates, about how to find it.

Officially, there is only one key in circulation at any time, and it can be checked out for a maximum of 24 hours. Since I was headed with some friends and family on a road trip that would take me through the Mojave (and ultimately to Heizer’s “Double Negative,” outside Las Vegas, and Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” on the northern lip of the Great Salt Lake, on the way to Wyoming), I asked the MAK staff if there were any way we could visit “Social Pool” even though I wouldn’t be able to return the key right away.


In the end they kindly lent me one of their spare keys, along with a caveat: On the morning I hoped to visit and swim in the pool, there was a chance somebody from a local pool-supply company would be there draining and refilling it.

I thanked them for the extra key, and I said I’d take my chances.

The ripples of a dream

For every family a house, with every house a garden, and in every garden a swimming pool: This was the postwar L.A. Dream reduced to its essence. What made the pool so powerful in the iconography of modern L.A. architecture is that it somehow managed to be both ubiquitous and exotic.

Think of the pool that Pierre Koenig hung from the hillside edge of the 1960 Stahl House, otherwise known as Case Study #22. Or the one Richard Neutra designed for his 1946 Kaufmann House in Palm Springs. Or pools behind ranch houses set into gardens designed by Thomas Church.

Often charismatically photographed by Maynard Parker or Julius Shulman, these pools were perfectly designed as aspirational features — glamorous but attainable — of Southern California domestic life.

Like the pools in paintings of Los Angeles by David Hockney, they belonged neither to plutocrats (like Julia Morgan’s ornate pools for William Randolph Hearst on the hill at San Simeon) nor to the city as a whole (like the images of Sutro Baths, the huge San Francisco public pool that burned to the ground in 1966, that hung in so many Bay Area houses of my childhood). They belonged to homeowners who were pretty much like you, except maybe a bit more stylish or luckier in career or real estate.

Still, the optimism inherent in that imagery has always been undercut by a different kind of L.A. pool. There is, of course, the life-size rubber horse, designed to look dead and bloated, that Tod Hackett sees submerged in a pool in the Nathanael West novel “The Day of the Locust.” (Instead of the elephant in the room, L.A. has the horse in the swimming pool.) And fetid or drained pools behind foreclosed houses. And the unpeopled blue ovals in Ed Ruscha’s “Nine Swimming Pools” from 1968. And the dead body in the pool at the start of Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” (1950).

This darker, noirish view of the pool is ascendant again, helped along by worries about the environmental costs of private swimming pools in an era of drought and climate change.

The average L.A. pool, if left uncovered, loses roughly 20,000 gallons of water a year to evaporation; on an annual basis that’s far, far less than Angelenos spend watering their lawns, but hardly negligible either. As UC Santa Barbara media studies professor Dick Hebdige puts it in the catalog for “Backyard Oasis,” a 2012 photography show at the Palm Springs Art Museum, the swimming pool’s bright symbolism has dramatically faded thanks to “a growing awareness of the finite nature of water as a natural resource.”

“The private pool,” he writes, “is well on its way to outré.”

The California pools that have the most cultural power now are the ones that recapture some sense of public space or shared resources, like the restored Morgan pool at architect Frederick Fisher’s Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica.

All of which leaves us to wonder: If we’ve run out of room, money or inclination to build new houses with pools out back, what becomes of the pools we already have? What’s the relationship between the backyard pool and the larger issue of how we use, waste, move or store water in Southern California?

Those questions help animate a sharp pair of shows organized by the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design and running through Sunday at WUHO Gallery on Hollywood Boulevard.

On one side of the long, narrow gallery are aerial photographs by Lane Barden of the Los Angeles River, the port and the full length of Wilshire Boulevard, collected under the title “Linear City.” The surprisingly intimate pictures of the river, in particular, suggest just how much our attitude toward it and toward the private pool have in common.

We wrapped the river in concrete in the 1930s. The backyard swimming pool, especially in a city facing the Pacific, is a similarly brash 20th century effort to cleave the metropolis tidily from the natural world, though at a domestic scale instead of an infrastructural one.

Increasingly that brashness looks misplaced or antique; instead we seem at the mercy of forces beyond our control when it comes to water, whether the result is prolonged drought or — as happened last week at UCLA — Pauley Pavilion flooded and looking quite a bit like a giant indoor pool.

On the opposite wall is “The Big Atlas of L.A. Pools,” a project by Benedikt Gross, a graphic designer, and Joseph K. Lee, a geographer, who decided a couple of years ago they wanted to document every pool in the L.A. Basin. They began by sending satellite photos of the area to an outfit in India, which for $300 mapped more than 43,000 L.A. County pools.

The strongest curatorial gesture in the “Big Atlas” is among the subtlest. Running along the wall are books filled with aerial photographs of pools: One book for each city. The cities with the most pools (Long Beach, Beverly Hills) are at the end farthest from the door, and as you move toward the front of the gallery the books get progressively slimmer. By the end they are more like pamphlets.

The way the books threaten to disappear matches the way that the swimming pool — like the surface parking lot, the freeway, the lawn and the single-family house — is rapidly fading as a symbolic and cultural marker of Los Angeles.

A pool runs dry

Robert was wearing a baseball cap, T-shirt, jeans, boots and sunglasses. He was standing right at the edge of Barsuglia’s “Social Pool,” next to an admonition in red letters reading, “Please respect and preserve the artwork.”

I introduced myself and the three people I was traveling with to Wyoming: my 10-year-old daughter, my friend Bill and his 9-year-old son. Robert’s presence, of course, meant that we wouldn’t be able to take a dip, which is the central attraction of this suburban pool in desert exile.

The kids were disappointed — they’d just changed into their bathing suits, and the temperature, at 9 in the morning, was nearing 90 — but contented themselves splashing in the inch or two of water that was left in the bottom of the pool.

Robert, good-natured about this interruption, explained that he worked for a pool-supply company in Joshua Tree, about an hour’s drive away. He said he came out once a week or so to clean “Social Pool,” which will be open through the end of September.

He was a perfect advertisement for the installation’s guiding themes, a walking symbol of the labor and energy required to keep pools full of pristine water in a climate like ours — and of the lengths we’ll go to swim in solitude.

Barsuglia asks each group of visitors to “Social Pool” to bring a gallon of water, to replace roughly what’s lost to evaporation while the pool is uncovered. I had that gallon jug in my hand when I met Robert.

Since he was working when we arrived I didn’t get to pour it in, a gesture, in this summer of severe drought, that must feel to other visitors to “Social Pool” like some kind of ceremonial apology to the watershed on behalf of 20 million Southern Californians.

But I did think, later on, of the famous lines from “Sunset Boulevard” about Joe Gillis, the screenwriter played by William Holden seen floating face-down in the opening scene: “The poor dope. He always wanted a pool. Well, in the end he got himself a pool. Only the price turned out to be a little high.”