The Rise of the Kidney-Shaped Pool—and its Unexpected Impact on Skate Culture

The Rise of the Kidney-Shaped Pool—and its Unexpected Impact on Skate Culture

Who knew Southern Californian skaters owed so much to Alvar Aalto?

Breaking free of the rectilinear lines of European Modernism and instead mimicking the natural contours of lakes and ponds, the undulating watering holes known as kidney-shaped pools came into vogue in the United States during the midcentury era—particularly in California. Read on to learn more about the origin of the distinctive shape, and how kidney-shaped pools went on to play a huge role in skateboarding culture.

The kidney-shaped pool at Villa Mairea in Noormarkku, Finland, is one example of Alvar Aalto’s exploration of curved forms.

Although the kidney-shaped pool grew in popularity during the 1950s, its origins can be traced to the work of Finnish Modernist architect Alvar Aalto. In 1939, Aalto completed his seminal Villa Mairea in Noormarkku, Finland; the home was designed as an experimental, rural house that combined many of the ideas and themes that Aalto was interested in exploring—among them organic, natural forms. The yard included a kidney-shaped swimming pool that had curved edges at the bottom of the pool, creating a bowl-like void in the ground. 

The Donnell Garden was on the cover of House Beautiful magazine in April of 1951.

However, it wasn’t until 1948 that a pool with a similar configuration made its way to the United States with a landscape design by landscape architect Thomas Church. Church had been commissioned to design the landscape for a new house for the Donnell family in Sonoma, California. Church was a friend of Aalto’s and had been deeply influenced by the Finnish architect’s interest in biomorphic design. Church had perhaps even seen early sketches of the pool at Villa Mairea in the late 1930s during a trip to Finland. 

Completed in 1948, the Donnell Garden by landscape architect Thomas Church is one of the most influential midcentury landscapes.

Following its completion, the Donnell House and its sinuous pool were widely published, becoming an influence that would seep, one could say, into the water. By the 1950s and ’60s, kidney-shaped pools could be found all over the United States, particularly in California. 

At the center of the Donnell pool is an abstract sculpture by Adaline Kent.

However, in the mid-1970s, the pools were adapted for other uses, as droughts in California prompted homeowners to conserve water and empty their pools. Skateboarding was becoming an increasingly popular sport, and the curved edges of the drained pools made them ideal for inventing new moves and tricks—ultimately making this aspect of residential landscape an intrinsic part of skate culture.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, empty kidney pools presented ideal conditions for the development of skateboarding and its complex tricks because of their curved corners and pool edges.

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Today, the pools have endured as icons of both midcentury modern residential design and quintessential, Californian skateboarding culture. In tribute to this unlikely Venn diagram, we’re rounded up some rad examples of the kidney-shaped pool we’ve featured over the years.

Two Terraces Overlook a Kidney-Shaped Pool and Hot Tub

At a lavish home in Los Angeles, the kidney-shaped swimming pool is shaded and private. There is also an outdoor shower area.

The kidney-shaped pool, along with a spa, outdoor fireplace, and built-in barbecue, complete the backyard at a historic bungalow in Malibu.

More of a reflecting pool than a swimming pool, the organic shape of this kidney-shaped pool contrasts with the otherwise rectilinear forms at this Modernist apartment building in Milan.

A 1964 home built by the iconic and prolific California developer, Joseph Eichler, features a kidney-shaped pool in the back yard. The lot is almost 10,000 square feet, and the fully enclosed backyard space is perfect for entertaining, featuring a kidney-shaped swimming pool and a hot tub.

At the renovated Austin Motel, hospitality group Bunkhouse retained the kidney-shaped pool and added a new bar by Jack Sanders.

Mass Studio completed the renovation of a 1960s house in Brentwood, California, that came complete with a classic midcentury kidney pool. During the renovation, the patio and area around the pool was refreshed with a lounge area, fire pit, and plants.


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