A Misguided Tour

Eric Herman Headshot

Eric HermanI’ve recently been asked on a couple of unrelated occasions, what’s the ugliest or worst pool and spa installation I’ve ever seen? That’s a tough question because I’m not really in the business of seeking out the inferior examples our industry puts forth. Besides, what is and isn’t “ugly” is an entirely subjective concept.

I’ll answer with these caveats. My opinion, experienced thought it may be, really has no more value than anyone else’s does.  And I’m not going to name names or show an image, so we’re going to have rely on my written description — but I’m pretty sure you’ll get the picture. 

First, the project I’m describing was very high-end in terms of price, well over $1 million and located on a massive estate property in Northern California in a stunningly gorgeous neighborhood. 

It was about 10 years ago when I was asked by an extremely persistent PR agent representing one of our major manufacturers to consider an article about a backyard paradise, which happened to feature something like 14 pumps from said manufacturer.  This was a time when budgets for things like press promotions were far more flush than they are these days and the offer was sweetened by a trip to the region to visit the site, an interview the builder and the chance to take pictures. 

Never one to balk at such an opportunity, I gladly accepted the offer with the condition I wouldn’t promise to publish the project until I determined it was worthwhile. 

I arrived at the property and immediately noticed it was located right across the street from a massive, long-abandoned quarry that was draped in greenery, its basin filled with dark, beautifully reflective water. The straight cuts of the quarry were softened by the effects of time and the forces of nature, making for a beautifully random aquatic scene. My first thought was that it would’ve been tremendous design inspiration for the pool project. The builder was known for exquisite artificial rockwork, and this setting surely would’ve been a great model. 

Unfortunately, that was not to be the case. When I arrived, the homeowner greeted me and immediately launched into an soaring monologue about how he wanted to recreate Maui in his backyard and believed he had done so, adding that he had been told his was the biggest residential swimming pool in California. 

With that verbal aperitif, I was led to the backyard to view this masterwork.  

It was huge, no doubt about that. The pool itself was a long channel-like vessel probably 200 feet in length. The space was against a steep, long slope that backed the property with the pool structure cut into the hillside with a massive foundational substructure, a huge expense. Massive expanses of artificial rock rose on the far side of the pool while a string of pearl-like rockwork rimmed the pool’s front edge. Viewed from the back of the house, it looked like a straight cliff fronted by a manmade pool, bordered by fake rock and a narrow band of decking. 

The rockwork had no connection to the surroundings and seemed to leap out of nowhere. It was riddled with linear weirs emerging from random places across the face of the rockwork, again with no ostensible visual reason for being there. On one end of the scene was a massive rock waterfall structure with water senselessly emerging from the top and gushing over, again, perfect straightedge weirs. The structure contained a grotto that was perfectly square, and yet another violation of anything remotely naturalistic in appearance.  

More troubling still was an arched architectural bridge that crossed the pool. In terms of form it was of the sort you might find in a Japanese garden, but it was also unfortunately clad in artificial rock. As someone with a fascination of bridges, this was a visual abomination. 

And it gets worse. The pool had a light interior finish that totally contradicted the color palette of the rockwork, there were cheesy spouting dolphin statues on end of the pool and really tacky oceanic tile mosaics, which might have looked good in a different setting, but in this context really just looked cartoon-like. 

As a long, narrow, winding channel, the pool was conceived as a kind of lazy river, but it only ran from end to the other, no circuit involved. And according to the builder, some of the turns were so tight that no one could ride it with any sense of continuous leisure. The river terminated in a section of the channel that was squared off into a wide section to form the main swimming pool area, which was more or less a rectangle and set up for pool volleyball. 

To top it all off, the homeowner opted for artificial grass and plantings as a maintenance-saving measure. And let’s be clear, these were not the products we see today where artificial turf and planting are hard to tell from the real thing. No, this stuff just looked plastic. 

It was, in total, a scene of garish excess totally lacking in any reasonable design program and certainly not anything that would remind anyone of the hypnotically beautiful climes of Maui — except for the homeowner. In all fairness, the artificial rock was executed with some nice touches and in a different application and setting would’ve been lovely. The problem was the overall visual program made absolutely zero sense and just seemed grotesquely fake. 

Suffice to say, when the homeowner asked me in what issue the article would appear, I was politely circumspect — a most awkward moment, indeed. Later on when I asked the builder what he thought of it, he candidly told me, at some great length, how he could’ve used the budget to create a work of true beauty, but early on realized the homeowner knew what he wanted and wouldn’t relent. 

So, my answer to the question of the ugliest pool I’ve ever seen begs another question: When someone is willing to pay for an overblown eyesore, how far do you go in trying to guide them to more sensible ideas? 

To that quandary I’ll add this thought. There really is such thing as good and bad design based on known principles. And as professionals, I believe our industry does have an obligation to at least try to avoid creating works that only serve as bad examples. 

What do you think? 

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