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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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