Artillery Row

In praise of Sky Pool

Social distancing means something different up here

“I swiped right when I saw he owned a Lamborgini”. The bronzed and impossibly sculpted Polish girl was explaining to a small gaggle of equally improbable friends about how she had met her boyfriend. She and her friends, lips just the safe side of turbot, are perched on sharply angular teak loungers at the poolside.

Twenty minutes earlier, as the clock struck 2, a semi-feral mob had descended upon those self-same loungers, sanatorium white — each carefully emblazoned with a discreet Embassy Gardens logo, you cannot bring your own to disrupt the corporate aesthetic — had been rolled out and prime positions had been captured. I was reminded of the old Carling Dambusters ad and mythical stories of stout German tourists on the Costa del Sol. Here though, the bodies are beautiful, and the pheromones are as strong as the factor 57.

I’m lucky enough to be at the infamous Sky pool, London’s newest exclusive attraction. I’m 115 ft in the air, overlooking the new American Embassy in Nine Elms, Vauxhall. It’s 2.30pm on a beautiful weekday and the place is packed. Below, London continues its fitful lockdown life. But here, existence feels vastly different. As far as I can tell it is normal — well normal for insta-influencer, Love Island normal.

Hundreds of social justice warriors upon social media have suggested that its very existence sets off their vertigo

According to management, the whole deck, as it is residents only and thus an extension of their homes, can be classified as a private balcony. Therefore, normal social distancing rules apply differently, compared to more terrestrial venues. That is not to say there are no rules. Put it this way, you must wear a shirt, not a mask, when you visit the bar. Covid worries have also meant that the management has ruled against showing Euro2020 games in the lounge area for fear of overcrowding, masks must be worn in the lifts, and the spa and sauna are still out of bounds. The staff themselves, remain strictly masked. 

The controversy about the pool is not about the pool itself. Though many commentators and hundreds of social justice warriors upon social media have suggested that its very existence sets off their vertigo, I can confirm that once in the permanently 29c water one hardly notices what is below — physically, or socially. Yes, if you concentrate you can see people wandering about down there, their figures distorted by water and the vivid colouration of green and blue created by the tiling on the built canyon’s either side.

Please stay 35 meters above others

The engineering facts about the pool are impressive, and though existentially preposterous, and utterly pointless, it really is rather remarkable. The pool itself is constructed from 50 tonnes of clear monocoque acrylic — don’t ask me what the carbon cost of acrylic is — it’s astronomic. At 82ft long, and with the visible section of 45ft, it is a piece of engineering genius. The acrylic block, whose base is a full 12 inches and sides 8 inches thick and almost 10ft tall, is what most impresses. Designed by structural engineers Eckersley O’Callaghan and HAL Architects for the Irish, family-owned developers Ballymore, it was made in Colorado and shipped to the UK. Without doubt, it is visionary and like many things, the vision and its realisation has ruffled feathers. That is what visions generally do when they are brought to reality. If it feels a little industrial, and it does to look at, with no frippery, it is absolutely a case of function following form. According to Brian Eckersley one of the lead engineers, one inspiration is the Barton Swing Aqueduct, the 1891 structure which carries the Bridgewater canal over the Manchester Ship Canal. As he says, “The pool at Embassy Gardens is an aqueduct in that sense, in that it carries a body of water across a gap”. To an engineer, it really is that simple.

There is nothing new about rich, plain young men gathering gaggles of less rich, less plain, young women

Sadly, to the terminally aggrieved, this extraordinary piece of engineering cannot, as it should be, be celebrated in its own terms. It is controversial because of its social environment.  The original sin of the sky pool is not the vacuousness of some of its users, but their social – or let’s be honest, their financial class. The pool is a novelty. In the sun it is an immensely popular novelty as is the bar, restaurant, and deck. Oddly enough, the pool itself is not the focus, but to been seen on the poolside loungers most definitely is. Not everybody is allowed in. To get in, you live there, or know someone who does. The whole development has two distinct groups. Those who pay the full price – and get access to a whole series of facilities, the state-of-the-art gym, the private cinema with its small cluster of Weinstein inspired chairs, the business centre, the post room, and the team of attentive concierges. Those who pay far less, as they knew when the signed up, don’t have these facilities. It is, and always was, part of the deal, pay less, get less. For people to then complain about paying less, then not having access to all the facilities are like those, like me, who buy a flight on Easy jet. Unlike me they go on to demand the right to use British Airways business class lounge. Nobody really does this, and if they do, they are either chancers or fools.

Even within the rarefied there are distinctions. People who live in the development (and who have paid the top whack) can invite guests. This access is also on a sliding scale. If you have a multi-bedroomed penthouse — then you can invite as many people as can comfortably sleep there – up to five or six. If you own or rent a studio flat – where two might possibly live, (and are registered as doing so on the exclusive app) then you can invite two guests. Any suggestion (outside twitter and the more excitable parts of the media) that these rules are unpopular hasn’t seen the inboxes of residents. They are inundated by friends begging to be invited to experience the pool.

Nobody is pretending that the facilities are equitable, they are not. The question is, why should they be? There is no way I could afford to live in Embassy Gardens. Frankly, if I could, I wouldn’t choose to, but I am a guest. The buildings are ugly, the any-town, plutocrat spec-build style doesn’t tickle my aesthetic nodules. It has a Chinese building site vibe just is not high on my wish list. But if people wish to live here – and many do, with an overpowering supercar aesthetic, Trucial state number plates being legion – then why on earth should they not do so? If they want to pay through their well powdered noses, crack on. That is what being part of a free society is about. There is nothing new about rich, plain young men gathering gaggles of less rich, less plain, young women. Half of art and literature would be bereft without it. Embassy Gardens is Ballard’s “High Rise” before the fall, but here there is no suggestion or feeling that the fall will ever come. I discount Owen Jones’s call for this swimming pool to be the Bastille moment for a revolution. But for the FT to describe it as “spatial apartheid” is so hyperbolic as to be risible. I await the Guardian’s boycott of Soho House for the same reasons.

What is more, I understand that the success of the pool is leading to plans that in the adjacent development there is likely to be another. Success breeds emulation, breeds democratisation.

I am reminded of the career of Sir Joseph Paxton. In 1836, as the chief gardener of Chatsworth he built the Great Conservatory for the Duke of Devonshire. At the time it was a marvel of engineering, using the very latest technology in glass and iron, the largest glass building in the world. If you want exclusive — by gum this was exclusive. New systems were created for making plate glass, innovation was driven forward. The financial risk for all this was taken by the rich, not by the public purse. Yes, and the benefits of wandering around the finished glasshouse were enjoyed by the rich, exclusively.

Yet 14 years later, all that risk paid off for the public. The Crystal Palace that he built in 1851 relied upon the innovations paid for by the rich, but this time it was to be enjoyed by everyone. Over 6 million people passed through its turnstiles over a period of just over 5 months. The census of 1851 tells us that 18 million people lived in England and Wales at that time, so in a few short years the engineering genius for the very few, became the experience of the very many.  

I am not claiming that new generation council estates will have their own rate payer funded infinity pools, the public purse is not infinite after all, but denouncing innovation because it is exclusive is popularist Luddism. Like Luddism it will pass.

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