"Australia's swimming pools exemplify the balancing act of architecture"

Venice Architecture Biennale 2016: the Australian pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale will make a convincing argument for the swimming pool as the Antipodean answer to the piazza – a public space that deserves protection, says Dan Hill.

The Australian pavilion for the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale is not simply focused on buildings, thankfully, but on what is almost the absence of a building, the inverse of a building: the pool. In doing so, it actually reveals deeper currents running through Australian architecture than most buildings do.

Curated for the Australian Institute of Architects by Amelia Holliday, Isabelle Toland and Michelle Tabet, the pavilion's forthcoming exhibit is accompanied by a fine book, which lovingly explores the rich terrain and complex conditions of the Australian pool.

The book ultimately makes a case for the pool as the authentically Antipodean contribution to urbanism, a distinctly Australian public place, the country's piazza. For a culture typically seen as oriented towards the playa, the pool is its plaça.

Far more interesting, diverse and widespread across the continent than the beach, the Australian pool is both the deep past of the country – and the book does a good job of describing the indigenous Australian understanding of pools, in all their myriad forms – but perhaps also its future, at a time when genuinely public places are threatened in Australia.

The book is comprised of interviews with eight prominent Australians, each of which bring a personal perspective to the pool. The way that Olympian Ian Thorpe reflects lyrically on the sensory experience of swimming, on the peculiar relations of the body in underwater space, is unexpectedly fascinating.

He describes the Australian pool as a place for serious swimming – which most Australians do, and which demarcates the pool culture there – but also how it exemplifies the balancing act of architecture, between body, space and programme.

Racial politics are also framed here through the interview with Hetti Perkins, daughter of leader of the Freedom Ride, Charles Perkins, who defied racist segregation in the municipal pool at Moree, New South Wales, in 1965. That the pool was site of one of the key events in Australian racial politics speaks volumes.

The interviews are framed with startling photography that reveals the diversity of the Australian urban terrain, as well as the myriad possibilities of the naturally occurring pools in the farther-flung Australian environments.

If this kind of pool suggests the opportunity for contemporary "green and blue infrastructure", there are further examples in Australia's extraordinary coastal pools, photographed beautifully by Remy Gerega. Vast cerulean rockpools apparently hewn by giants from the raging Tasman Sea (actually the work of unknown architectural heroes at municipal authorities), these are one of the few places to experience a glimpse of sublime Australian wilderness in the otherwise overly-manicured experience of the continent's east-coast cities.

For traditionalists who might simplistically look for buildings in an architecture exhibit, there are plenty of masterly and magnificent plays with mass here – especially from Robin Williams Architect, Charles Wright Architects, Allen Jack+Cottier, Bligh Voller Nield/Spackman & Mossop, and M3architecture, but perhaps most of all James Birrell and his brilliant 1959 Centenary Pool. Birrell is a supremely good architect, criminally little known outside Australia.

But it's the collection of vantage points, described in the interviews, that better describe the pool – in particular as a place of performance: sporting, but also social, political, cultural. It's a distinctly public place in Australia, neatly captured by Peter Carey in his great little story 30 Days in Sydney describing an ocean pool as "a public pool, a democratic pool, rough at the edges, frequented by all sorts of people."

These pools are in contrast to those of many other bathing cultures. The European pool is often a withdrawn space, perhaps as part of an earlier tradition of the more functional and personal act of bathing rather than swimming. Where it is public, it is interiorised, compartmentalised, often furtive, and delightfully so, in its own way.

Other ancient bathing cultures – Japanese, Korean, Finnish – are also more withdrawn, ritualised acts of cleansing in accordingly intimate spaces.

The classic designerly book on all this, Undesigning the Bath by Leonard Koren, is almost a philosophical tract, a Bachelard of bathtime, and actually great as a result.

"Bathing is best enjoyed in a place where you feel safe enough to put aside your social roles, relax your body armour, and open your psyche to the moment," he writes.

Australia's matey, convivial sense of total social relaxation is rarely clearer than at the pool when most of your conversations are taking place near-naked. It's a flattened, open public space, demonstrating a people, plural, rather than a person, singular.

As the great contemporary Australian write Christos Tsiolkas says in the book: "The suburban multicultural public pools, for me, represent a version of Australia that I am most comfortable with and that, I think, is the version that I really would love to keep defending."

Perhaps, in places where there are strong traditions of viable public space elsewhere, in the street and the square, it makes sense for the European pool's function to be the withdrawn space. But modern Australia has a limited tradition of public spaces thanks to its 20th-century doubling-down on American urbanism, so the pool becomes a necessary condition for a community to come together.

Of course, the pool cannot enable the plurality of activity manifest in the square. Yet it can be a place for political expression nonetheless.

The book notes not only the aforementioned Moree 1965 protests but also the 1994 campaigns to save the Fitzroy Pool in Melbourne, noting how the latter also became a "parable for our times", as people fought for the pool as in some way embodying "democracy, freedom, community" in its own humble quotidian fashion.

An event too recent to make the book reinforces this idea of the Australian pool in opposition to a general "closing inwards" in Australian politics. An 8,400-word rant by tech entrepreneur Matt Barrie, posted on LinkedIn in February but then picked up everywhere from the Sydney Morning Herald to the Daily Mail, thoroughly skewered the small-minded conservatism that is rarely lurking far away in local politics, decrying its impact upon urban life in particular.

For Barrie and many others, a series of heavy-handed moralistic impositions, around licensing especially, indicate a discomfort with the basic conditions of city life. Ironic in this most urbanised of countries.

And the emblematic image associated with the article? It's of policemen with sniffer dogs patrolling the Andrew Boy Charlton pool at Wooloomooloo, the policemen incongruous and absurdly overdressed in mirror-shades and heavy black uniforms amongst the glistening, sunscreen-oiled, bikini'd and speedo'd bodies reclining beneath them in the glaring sun. It's a passive-aggressive denial of the idea of public space, and the opportunity it affords for social fluidity, and it's telling that the pool is the place it happens.

Yet in a place where the main alternative is often the mall, the Australian pool still stands in for this sense of publicness, not least through its easy social texture.

Given this, the militarised Andrew Boy Charlton Pool image is a reminder of what Australia has to fight for: the importance of public spaces, of places that public politics can be refracted through. This exhibition, and this book, underscore and explore that idea in numerous ways — and in doing so, suggests the wider themes of this year's Biennale.

The Biennale's curator, the brilliant Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, recently said: "What we architects model is not bricks or stones or steel or wood, but life itself. Architecture is about giving form to the places where people live  –  it is not more complicated than that but also not more simple than that."

The pool must traverse what architecture engages with, from the most basic conditions of shelter, of transitions from privacy to public, through to higher order of the human condition, and the wider systems through which a society articulates itself.

At best, it stands for an openness to change, the presentation of a society, a sense of social fluidity, a sturdy resilience and daring form-making, health-nurturing qualities, a democratic flatness, a reminder and pointer for green and blue infrastructures, a place that embodies a civic sensibility.

Compared to variations on an opera house and arrays of finely-honed houses as "objects in the landscape"  – as good as they all are  –  the question of the public pool suggests a more productive and challenging brief for a future Australian architecture.

Main image of Neeson Murcutt Architects' Prince Alfred Park Pool in Sydney by Brett Boardman.

Dan Hill is an associate director at Arup in London, where he is head of Arup Digital Studio. He is an adjunct professor at both RMIT University and the University of Technology, Sydney, in Australia, and his blog City of Sound covers the intersection between cities, design, culture and technology.