My favourite modernist building …. Freyberg Pool

Friday, August 19th, 2016

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I was meant to be an Olympic swimmer. My parents had determined this fate from birth, yet the following decade was spent drowning in the pungent mockery of chlorine infected swimming pools. Despite my parents’ best efforts, I could never fathom delight from the repetitive lap and tumble, rinse and repeat of the monotony that was swim training. Those swimming past me always had their eye on the golden prize, scantily clad for maximum efficiency and minimal drag, wanting to best one another to win affirmation and glory. All I could imagine was that swimming was better placed with tropical beaches and leisurely summers resting in tepid sands. Swimming was something to enjoy, not endure as a measure of my self-worth. It is perhaps, then, of little wonder that I now write of Brazilian modernism than compete in it.

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Freyberg Pool is the majestic medal forged upon the sinuous ribbon that is the Wellington harbour. A white plinth from which a scalloped roof, arms raised triumphantly into the heavens, flexes upon diving into the turbid waters below. It is of little doubt that Jason Smith drew from Niemeyer’s Pampulha Yacht Club, an asymmetric butterfly fluttering daintily above stately walls of glass.

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In borrowing concrete expressionism and technological wonder from the emerging tropics, Smith transplanted not only an international movement onto our shores but instilled the idea that a streamlined and monochromatic future could be grounded in a nostalgic celebration of the past. Elegant, understated, and resoundingly the most delightful structure of modernism into which I have refused to ever step foot.

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It is not for its strength or vitality, nor its physique or athletic success that I admire this building. Rather my appreciation stems from its symbolism in the urban landscape. It holds back the city’s win or lose mentality, a constant desire for affirmation, and a survivalist need for attention while locating the point from which the swimming lanes end and the tropical, tepid sands begin. It marks the beginning of genteel leisure, a fountain of water adrift upon the sea, and the long and endless days of an imagined summer. The building is a departure from constructed reality, a spatial threshold between a life to be endured and one to be enjoyed, and a symbol that difference can be its own form of winning. Humble, understated, the building is a diving platform on the water’s edge where dreams are made for those who choose to leap beyond the golden prize.

Duncan Harding

The “My favourite modernist building …” series is in support of Gordon Wilson Flats which is facing threat of demolition.


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