Beauty and truth in Merewether – ritual and exchange through design at the ocean baths

One of my favourite places to grab a coffee from is the Cup of Truth, down in the subway at Flinders Street Railway Station, in Melbourne where I live. One routine morning upon arriving at my desk after grabbing a take-away coffee from this excellent hole-in-the-wall outlet, I found myself staring at the question the cafe had printed, stencil-like, on the outside of their cardboard cup: “WHERE DO YOU LOOK FOR THE TRUTH” [no question mark].

As I sat at my desk, fixated on these profound words and contemplating their appeal, my own answer came to me. I wanted to reply. So I tweeted: “@cupoftruth: Where do you look 4 the truth? People don’t look for something they don’t want (THE truth); they prefer their own version of it.”

Just as people maintain their own versions of reality, operate within their own narrative on life, they also regard beauty independently. The old adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” suggests beauty is personally discerned.

But is it? Despite such personal interpretations of beauty and truth, it was Keats who said they were one and the same: “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all/Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”1

The linking of the two is key to unlocking what they individually mean. Whilst we can walk around with our own version of reality, and debate whether something is beautiful or not, by defining beauty and truth as one the poet teaches us that perhaps not everything we hold as beautiful is beautiful, and not everything we believe to be true is true. Keats is not simply linking synonymous words. Keats links different words — words of different meaning — in a statement of qualification. The meaning of both words is conditional upon the other: beauty is only beauty if it is also true, and truth is only true if it is also beautiful.

So what does each word individually mean that they may be joined in association to give a greater, more complete and definitive meaning? Robert Grudin, in his book Design and Truth suggests truth “is the laws of nature as we experience them…[that] the truth lies in the rough but workable details of what we are and where we are.”2 He, too, links truth to beauty by suggesting good design — which he argues “tells the truth” — “honours the dominion of beauty and delight.”

What then of beauty? In his book The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture, Juhani Pallasmaa teaches us that “beauty is not a detached aesthetic quality, the experience of beauty arises from grasping the unquestionable casualties and interdependencies of life.”3 Sounds a lot like truth.

In my first post, I introduced a rough definition of design. My main theme concerned the process of design and the importance of strategy in it. What I want to build in here, is just why design matters. Design is critical because through a process of observing our world and devising new ways of interacting with it, design can bring us in a direct and real relationship with our world and with ourselves in the world. And in this greater consciousness of ourselves and the world in which we are living — a greater sense of being alive — good design reveals the truth and affords beauty. The ocean baths at Merewether does both.

Designed and supervised by H.G. Skott, Engineer, Merewether Ocean Baths were built during the depression and completed in 1935 by unemployed labourers through a depression-relief scheme. At an overall dimension of 100-metres x 90-metres they are the largest ocean baths in the state of New South Wales, and possibly in Australia.4 (Many locals believe them to be the largest ocean baths complex in the southern hemisphere.) Merewether is a suburb of Newcastle, and is located 3 kilometres from the city centre. The city lies 162 kilometres north of Sydney.

The baths consist of two large rectangular pools (100-metres x 50-metres, and 100-metres x 27-metres) arranged perpendicular to the ocean, orientated with their equal longer sides parallel to the shoreline. The two pools are divided by a generous concrete walkway level with the edges of the pools. The wider, outer pool is tidal; the inner, narrower pool is partly filled with sand and water pumped from the ocean, and is used by young children for shallow swimming.

The shell and surrounds of the baths are constructed entirely of in situ concrete formed on natural rock shelf, and finished with whitewash applied after cleaning which occurs twice weekly during the swimming season and weekly the rest of the year. Bench seats line the dividing promenade between the two pools. Picnic tables and shelters and outdoor showers are provided just below the baths pavilion opposite the wading pool. The pavilion houses a life guard on duty seven days during the summer swimming season, and change rooms, toilets and showers.

The realness of the sea is all around. It is in the natural elements of the coast — the constantly moving ocean, the sound of waves and birds, the rocky shelf around the walls. Our own existential awareness is heightened in relation to these natural elements through the constructed: the feeling and appearance of the weathered whitewash-coated intermittently wetted concrete underfoot — the patchy arrangement of exposed stone and white coating illuminating the ocean waters to a translucent emerald colour. There is also an awareness that is internal — within ourselves — in the challenge the waters of the baths present to us as individuals with abilities and preferences known only to us. And there is our awareness of each other; of people similarly partaking in what is offered. Overall, there is a happiness, a joy of being there, a celebration in participation by all ages, all body types and all levels of swimming ability.

This joy of engagement is not something I have experienced, say, at a regular municipal public swimming pool. For starters, the ocean baths are free of charge. There are no lane shenanigans here — no abuse, no dropping in or charging ahead at the change of ends as is customary at in-ground public pools. (Perhaps paying a price to swim gives some false sense of entitlement or right of possession.) Here, nobody owns the ocean.

In the early hours of the morning, feeling awkward with camera in hand in a public place where everyone had next to no clothes on, I was taken with people’s acceptance of me being there. Everyone I politely asked for permission to allow me to take photographs in their vicinity had no objections. On the contrary, most enquiries led to prolonged discussion about the baths. Through this I learnt of one elderly lady who had the previous day lost her goggles, only to come back the following day to find them hanging visibly on the shelter adjacent the baths, where someone kindly and thoughtfully placed them. This was important to her; she suffered emphysema and had set herself a goal to swim one entire length of the baths. I benefited from a similar act of consideration when, occupied swimming laps on an incoming tide, someone had thoughtfully lifted my sandals from off the weathered pavement and onto a bench seat to save them from being washed away. Elsewhere, two local men proudly told me about the “Steps of Knowledge” where regulars, around 8.30am, would meet to discuss affairs. Two other men soaking up the sun and enjoying conversation, poolside, pointed out the defunct Burwood Colliery railway tunnel in the bluff behind the bathhouse.

As the morning developed, families occupied the smaller pool. Here, children in rashies safely paddled about in floaties and pool toys, closely observed by parents standing knee-deep in the same calm, protected water. Other families played in the sand, next to beach towels and under umbrellas, completing an overall colourful, carnival scene of innocence that both parent and child were equally enjoying.

It is not just the swimmers who enjoy the baths. Next to the Steps of Knowledge is a much longer flight of steps which afford a different type of workout to swimming laps. Here runners and walkers do climbing repeats. Nearby rails and benches are used for push-ups, step ups and crunches. Again, all ages and abilities are in action, and no one really seems to mind what anyone else is doing.

It can’t be the sunshine and ocean alone which make people so happy, so relaxed, so charged with enjoying the moment and life. Afterall, the beach is more natural and, although popular, does not match the baths for the united participation and rapport among individuals. (Besides, I was told by the two men on the Steps of Knowledge that they and their mates continue their daily ritual of laps and communion year-round without a wetsuit, and, apparently, winter is the season for more intense conversations focusing on the football performance of the city’s beloved Knights.) Nor is it merely the provision of a relatively safe area in which to swim, or the topography that is so ideally suited to other forms of outdoor exercise; there are plenty of community and sporting facilities in our cities. There is something more to Merewether Ocean Baths.

At 100-metres x 90-metres and possibly the largest of their kind south of the equator, these are indeed impressive dimensions (an olympic-size swimming pool measures 50-metres x 25-metres), but their size isn’t their significant quality. As Dutch Landscape Architect Paul van Beek has said of landscape design: “Size doesn’t matter; Scale does!”5 Here is where beauty and truth come in to play: scale is contextual. And in design, context is everything — literally (context is physical, social, cultural, psychic, economic) and metaphorically (design cannot be pursued independent of context). Context determines which rules of truth apply.

At this size the ocean baths would potentially obliterate parts of an inland suburban neighbourhood if installed there. But perched on the edge of Merewether’s rocky shoreline, at the base of a rugged, dramatic bluff, the baths are at one with tide, crashing wave and ocean horizon — whereupon enormous bulk carriers waiting in line for their turn at entering Newcastle port appear strangely unaffected by wind or current. This is due to scale, which here, is part size (just over six olympic-size swimming pools), part plan simplicity (rectangular against a rocky sea edge), part siting (just above high tide), and part robust and consistent use of the one material (concrete finished in whitewash). And because of the appropriateness of scale to context, (and in the greater context, a gritty, traditional working-class city founded on coal mining), people are at one with the baths, with each other, and with all the sounds, sights and smells of the sea this perfect relationship and synergy so vividly affords.

Beautiful because it is so irrefutably true. Our awareness of our human condition relative to nature is heightened: the clear but subtle juxtaposition of the framed water of the baths to the infinite vastness and uncontrollable power of the ocean heighten our appreciation of both nature’s strength and rhythms, and our own individual vulnerability in relation to it — perhaps more so than what the ocean separately induces. We appreciate the relative safety of the pool, and feel secure with fellow swimmers compared to creatures lurking in the untamed ocean depths. This reveals the truth about the tide and our limits.

There is an honesty to the baths, which is a form of truth. You can almost feel the hardened hands of those who built the massive, concrete battered outer pool walls. There is no other added aesthetic to this construction. Everything built is made for purpose. Form has followed function in the modern tradition, but my guess is when H.G. Skott designed these baths to be built by men who sustained their living in doing so, he was only thinking of tide, pool depth, swim length and maintenance. There is no other sense of consciousness here that invades our contemporary seaside promenades. No ubiquitous “surfboard” seats or “ship’s mooring” bollards — what Grudin would refer to as “design lies”.6 Just the amplification of the essence of being at the coast, which is defined not by what we can bring to the water’s edge, but what the expansive ocean horizon, flushing salty waters and wind and sun in your face can bring to us. Good design is about what it reveals about place and what it reveals about us. Beauty is in the revelation.

What impresses me most about the baths is the incredible level of communal exchange that occurs there. The baths are a platform for the daily ritual of immersion in nature, exercise, conversation, mateship and courtesy to others. Merewether Ocean Baths teaches us that good design is less about what a designer produces than what a designer enables. As Grudin argues, “good designers are truth-tellers, facilitators in the dialogue that allows us to comprehend and engage reality.”7 To this end it is worth returning to the complimentary wisdom of Juhani Pallasmaa who reminds us that “beauty and simplicity cannot be preconceived, conscious targets in artistic work; one arrives at these qualities by struggling for other ends.”8

When it comes to cities, the commercial foundation, existence and basis of their survival should not preclude the generation of wealth defined by non-financial terms. Cities need to be productive places where the economic livelihoods of their citizens are maintained, but, in ways which makes for a society rich in the cultural, the social, the psychic, and the sensory, as well. In this regard, Merewether Baths is a sound public investment in physical infrastructure that enables us to be brought into a closer connection with nature and our own biological part in it, and with our fellow human beings. And it is an investment which seems true to the city it is within: open, friendly and workman-like.

As concurred by the husband of the lady who had lost and recovered her goggles, I think the wonderful sense of genuine communal exchange and ritual down at the baths is due to the respect that we have for one another in recognition that we are all seeking and enjoying the very same thing. That’s a beautiful truth. And that is worth both designing and living for.

1. John Keats, poem titled ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, 1819.

2. Robert Grudin, Design and Truth, Yale University Press (New Haven and London), 2010.

3. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture, Wiley (West Sussex), 2009.

4. NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, Heritage Branch website, http://www.heritage.nsw.gov.au/07_subnav_04_2.cfm?itemid=2170762

5. Quoted from the presentation given by Paul van Beek at the AILA National Conference, 200 Mile City — Designing a sustainable urban future, Brisbane, 2004.

6. Grudin, Design and Truth, op cit.

7. Ibid.

8. Pallasmaa, The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture, op cit.

Comments

  1. Absolutely stunning. I live in Newcastle, and value the baths highly. Brilliant article.

  2. siobhancurran says:

    Merewether Baths is my favourite outdoor space in the whole of Newcastle, nay the world. I think you will appreciate this talk by Bernie Curran which refers directly to Merewether Baths in endearing terms. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uB7_hS5PQ6g

  3. This was a beautiful article – many thanks for the inspiration and the exquisite language!

    I’m a regular visitor to Merewether Baths’ smaller, uglier sister in Newcastle City. There’s a distinct class difference between these two ocean baths which often goes un-articulated. Merewether’s status as perhaps Newcastle’s wealthiest suburb and its paucity of bus/rail connections with the “bogan” suburbs of the west seem to create a kind of filter on the Merewether Baths community. I guess just as there are rich beaches and poor beaches, there are rich baths and poor baths. It’s not that the poor are banned from going there: it’s just harder for them to get there, harder for them to relax there.

    When I visit the ugly sister baths – full of bogans, the handicapped, the retarded – it feels like the *ugly* truth to me. I don’t know – maybe I’m missing the point in terms of design, but it seems to me that Merewether Baths has a kind of moneyed glamour about it: athleticism, education, refinement. And I sort of feel like what the designers have enabled at Merewether is the marine equivalent of “the nice neighbourhood,” where niceness is contingent upon wealth. It’s curious that a lot of people like to have their wedding photographs taken at the smaller baths but don’t necessarily want to spend any time there; ah, the joy of heritage!

    But still, I love the simplicity of Merewether that you mention. I love its breadth and flatness just like the breadth and flatness of the ocean it rides. Swimmers love to go out to the white strip of concrete separating the baths from the ocean beyond and to rest their arms on the horizon itself. And that oceanic smell! It’s incredible.

    Anyway, thanks again for a great article!

  4. wow Andrew,thankyou for putting into words what i feel about the baths and try to capture with my photography.The baths are a special place and are to be treasured.

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