For a northern people, Canadians sure do love their swimming holes, even if they use them only a few months every year. What’s also notable when it comes to pool design is the wide range of examples dotting our cities. Here are four of the most inventive, from a raised stunner on the West Coast to small-space beauties in Toronto
Lawren Harris did not have a swimming pool. When the Group of Seven painter commissioned a grand house in Toronto’s Forest Hill neighbourhood in 1931, the Art Deco building was oriented to a formal foyer, a living room and a dining room. After Drew Mandel Architects renovated the place for a new family of owners, however, the firm turned its attention to the back of the home, where a new kitchen, breakfast room and backyard cabana are all designed around a pool. “The more casual rooms of the house have become the heart of it,” Mandel says. In this context, the swimming pool is crucial. “Pools are all about lifestyle; they’re entirely fun space,” says the architect. “People aspire to carve out space in their lives for more family time, more relaxation. And this is a way to literally make a space for it.” Mandel’s office, which designed the landscape as well as the interiors, applied the same, subtle Modernist aesthetic that it brought to the house to the pool: The limestone covering the walls of the house continues down onto the decking. And yet the pool has a few details designed for comfort and for visual effect. Among them are overflow (or “infinity”) edges on two sides, which create a block of water, dappled with light; “it has that special reflective quality and turns the pool into a sculptural element,” says Mandel. A bench along one edge also allows adults to sit and rest their elbows, while a row of “stepping stones” set in four inches of water provides visual interest and a whimsical way to travel along the pool.
Over the past several years, B.C.-based BattersbyHowat Architects Inc. has crafted a series of finely detailed Modernist houses to fit on treed Vancouver sites. For one such project, the home of Melissa and Ross Bonetti, the practice designed an L-shaped house and placed the pool right in the crook of the L, just a few steps down from the living/dining room and the master bedroom. “It’s a real leisure pool,” says architect David Battersby. “They use the pool all the time.” The deck is a blanket of finely crafted concrete accented by two zones made from decking of high-grade cedar; the planks are warm underfoot and pick up the material that wraps the house itself. Beyond the pool is a garden that blends rough-cut stones with groundcover. “Using multiple materials and textures breaks up what can be a vast desert of concrete,” Battersby says. The pool itself “is very pragmatic,” meant primarily for swimming, he adds, but the quality of the materials and the visual composition are also very important. “A pool isn’t always in use, but it absolutely plays a visual role in the landscape,” he says. “It’s got to do double duty.”
Incorporating a pool into a homier, more eclectic landscape is difficult, but not impossible. Take the small pool that landscape architect Joel Loblaw designed for a densely planted lot containing an old garage. The yard, in Toronto’s Riverdale neighbourhood, is the playground for a family of five; the pool was situated at the back, behind the garage and among some large trees. Loblaw used pale limestone as the coping stone around the 16-foot-long pool, then built the rest of the pool deck with grey Midnight Sky paving stones from Unilock. To soften this two-tone hardscape, Loblaw added a line of shrubs that come within a foot of the pool, which is technically possible with a concrete pool; “combined with the dark bottom of the pool,” this “gives it a really natural, lagoon-like feel,” he says. There are other visual flourishes, too. The pool is approached, for instance, on a line of paving stones that are set into the earth and surrounded by clover. As for that garage, a large structure sitting awkwardly in the small yard, Loblaw and his team treated it as a found object, adding new cedar slats to one side and preserving a “fantastic” layer of tin siding that has been attractively weathered and worn. “Gardens have to feel lived in, to have a sense of time,” Loblaw says. “This one has that feeling.”
A yard can be a welcome refuge, even if it’s small; the same applies to a swimming pool. Torontonians Raymond Girard and Laird Kay prove both points with the backyard of their downtown home containing a lap pool just six feet wide. The couple, both avid swimmers, were determined to have a pool despite the tight dimensions of their lot. Girard, a marketing executive, reports that their current version, which they use daily in summer, has served them well. “It’s 26 feet long and we can swim lengths in it, although Laird sometimes bumps his head at the end of it,” he laughs. In addition, “it’s great for lounging,” Girard says. On either side of the pool, which is made of concrete and has a black-limestone deck, a row of bright perennial flowers run its length, while strips of sedum groundcover in between keep leaves and petals out of the water. (Kay, a designer and photographer, envisioned the plantings.) “We used long strips [of plant material] to make the yard look longer than it is – it cheats the eye,” Girard explains. “We both really love Paul Smith as a designer, so we thought, Why not create a garden with the same kind of rigour?” That attention to detail extends to some strategic lighting underwater and along one side of the garden, a composition that Smith would surely approve of.