‘Strip down to your budgie smugglers’: diving into Australia’s obsession with the pool

Lightning ridge hot artesian baths in northern new south wales
Lightning Ridge hot artesian baths in northern New South Wales / © Simon Bayliss

From civil rights to The Slap, pools have been at the centre of many of the nation’s defining moments. At the Venice Architecture Biennale, they get the celebration they deserve

In 1965 the Australian Freedom Riders, including the Indigenous activist Charles Perkins, took 10 Aboriginal children – then banned from swimming outside school hours – to the Moree Artesian Baths in New South Wales.

It was a sweltering day but Perkins – fending off shouts of “scabby black niggers” and “dirty abo” – was told “darkies” were not allowed in. In response, he blocked the gate and a three-hour standoff ensued until, finally, an agreement was made: pool access would be restricted based on health, not race. The children swam, unopposed, for the first time.

That the most celebrated crusade in Australian civil rights took place not at a government institution but at a pool is revealing. From billabongs to beaches, this is a country of swimmers; and pools, whether wild bush waterholes or man-made chasms where Olympic dreams are chased, form a cornerstone of our national identity.

And now, the Australian pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, which opened this month and remains until November, is asking how, exactly, the pool holds so much pull in popular culture.

At the heart of the $250,000 installation is a small indoor pool. Visitors can get their toes wet, lounge on specially designed chairs, or, using headphones, listen to stories told by eight cultural figureheads, including the swimmer Ian Thorpe, the writer Christos Tsiolkas and the art curator Hetti Perkins, daughter of Charles. […]