Ahead of the Curve

How an architect accidentally invented vert skating

Vert skating originated in 1960s Los Angeles. Your parents leave town for the weekend. You drain their pool and roll around on your skateboard, carving up the evenly-transitioned walls.

In the 1970s, a major drought hit California. People were encouraged to empty their pools in an effort to conserve water. Skateboarders were more than happy to put them to a different use – and the introduction of urethane wheels made it all the easier to ride on less even terrain.

The history of vert skating goes back even further, and the Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto played a key role. Aalto was known for paying a lot of attention to the details of his buildings and furniture, making sure they were fit for purpose and doing away with fussy decoration. In 1939, he completed the design for the world’s first kidney-shaped swimming pool, which resides at Villa Mairea, Noormarkku, in Finland.

This villa is striking for its smooth, curving lines, from its balconies to smaller details, like the fireplace. Aalto was moving away from simple designs, where the most important thing was how a building or piece of furniture would be used. Now he was moving towards creating beautiful ‘organic’ forms, inspired by the nature around him – how his designs looked and felt.

In 1939, Alvar Aalto completed the design for the world’s first kidney-shaped swimming pool

Following a visit to Finland, landscape architect Thomas Church took Aalto’s idea back to the States. Church’s pool design for Donnell Garden soon proved so popular that anybody who was anybody just had to have one. Smoothly transitioned (read: curvaceous) kidney-bean swimming pools were a sign of the Good Life. Who could have predicted that these symbols of opulence, having descended into a state of bleaching decay, would be reclaimed by the countercultural underclass?

While some would view these Californian skateboarders as pests and vandals, they were able to see that a swimming pool could be used beyond what it was intended to be. It raises interesting questions for architects: what, and for whom, are buildings for? When a building stops being useful, what else might we be able to use it for? 

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