A Memorable Milestone

By Jim McCloskey

I’ve recently returned from four days of celebrating the 20th anniversary of Genesis with friends and colleagues in Paso Robles, Calif. – about 35 miles away from where it all started for them at Morro Bay on the state’s Central Coast.  The weather wasn’t as brilliant as it might have been, but everything else about the event was top notch and entirely befitting the occasion.

In the days leading up to the gathering, my mind kept wandering back to the first Genesis schools I attended at the Inn at Morro Bay.  The programs then were ambitious but relatively loose, with course leaders finding paths through vast heaps of fresh material.  There were often variations in scheduling and structure – and more than a few on-the-fly adjustments when it came to determining just how things should go.

Happily, the curriculum-related issues all sorted themselves out within the first several editions of what was then known as the Level I Design School.  New balances were struck, new instructors appeared, lots of subject material was tried and refined; gradually, things settled down to a point where the system became workable and familiar.

As for the original closing banquets, one quick decision was made that, no matter how important the pig-based theming of the organization might be, it would never again be a good idea to march a 600-pound porker into the room.  Long story short, the pig made a mess of the place and wasn’t invited back.  The associated costume party came and went as well:  Before long, a certain dignity caught hold as the three gents who ran the show began to appreciate the fact that Genesis had real influence and staying power.

What most caught my attention during the recent celebration is the reality of a changing of the guard.  Only two of the founders are still associated with the group, and both Skip Phillips and Brian Van Bower seem to be settling comfortably into roles as the program’s good-will ambassadors.  This transition has created higher-profile roles for (among others) Dave Peterson, Bill Drakeley and Mike Nantz.

Alone among those three, Mike has ties that stretch all the way back to the group’s earliest days, and I think it’s great that someone with awareness of the organization’s history and evolution is so involved in shaping its future.  He came up through the design/drawing portion of the program – where it all really started – and I’m guessing that one of his de facto roles is to represent the artistic side of the curriculum as a balance to the more-technical inclinations of his two colleagues.

For their parts, Dave and Bill have brought engineers’ attitudes about structure and discipline to the group – a practical change I discussed in this space about a year ago, when I commented on the fact that current Genesis classes come off like clockwork compared to the more free-form, improvised approaches that were so much a part of the package 20 years ago.

Back in 1998, when we were all a lot younger, the Genesis movement and its philosophical compatriots at WaterShapes were brash experimenters:  We threw all sorts of things at the walls to see what would stick.  While some elements of both entities faded quickly (porkers at parties, for one thing), the important point is that what has endured has, to this day, been subjected to constant pressure, refinement and polishing.  Components that make it through this process keep on advancing and being improved – and any added elements have to make sense.

But getting back to the fun, it was great seeing so many familiar faces and meeting so many spouses:  It made the whole event seem like a grand family reunion.

Here’s a tip of the cap to good times – and another 20 years!

***

I do wish that two gentlemen in particular could have joined us, including my dear friend and former colleague at WaterShapes, Eric Herman – hale and hearty but unable to attend.  His absence left an emotional gap for me that was hard to overcome.

Even more so, the fact that Vance Gillette is ailing and was unable to attend left a huge hole in the proceedings for me.  His role in encouraging the formation of both Genesis and WaterShapes has been well documented, and the value of his support, encouragement and friendship cannot be captured in mere words.

My hat is fully off now, for both of you!

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A Long, Strange Trip

By Jim McCloskey

As this newsletter appears, I’ll be heading north to Paso Robles, Calif., to participate in the 20th Anniversary Celebration for Genesis – very much aware of the fact that it’s a two-decade landmark for WaterShapes, too: We started pre-launch activities related to the magazine at about the same time the founders of Genesis began organizing their first-ever school in Morro Bay, Calif., for the fall of 1998.

The first phone call I made about starting WaterShapes was to Vance Gillette, checking in to see if he figured there was room for a new publication and, more important, if he would support the idea as a prospective advertiser. He said yes on both fronts, then immediately suggested I contact three guys who were talking about starting a school to raise the skill levels of pool/spa designers and builders.

He gave me their names and I burst out laughing: Those he offered – Skip Phillips, David Tisherman and Brian Van Bower – were (after Vance) numbers two, three and five on a list of six people I intended to call that very afternoon. It was a beautiful nest of coincidences, and by the end of that first exploratory day, I was convinced WaterShapes could be exactly the sort of iconoclastic magazine I wanted it to be.

In the months and years that followed, Genesis and WaterShapes became so philosophically interlinked that people figured that either Genesis owned WaterShapes or vice versa. I took a bit of umbrage the first time I heard that one, because ours was a much broader marketing proposition that cobbled together a community including not only pool and spa people, but also landscape designers and architects as well as pond and fountain designers and installers – a community defined by shared involvement with contained, controlled water on a spectrum from birdbaths to lakes.

Before long, however, I was serene in my acceptance of the thought that the “ownership misperception” was generally encouraging (maybe even flattering) and reflected the awesome balances we had struck as both the magazine and the educational system developed. It was also true that Genesis had widened its focus over time, seeing the same value we did in bringing designers and builders from other disciplines into the fold.

It was a real, honest synergy – and a shared conviction that what we were all doing was having a positive effect on everyone who came in contact with us.

The two entities were marching on crisp, parallel courses until the Great Recession hit. The advertising base for WaterShapes effectively collapsed in 2009 and 2010, and we had a choice between reinventing the operation or joining a whole lot of other defunct boutique publications on publishing’s back pages.

Obviously, we chose reinvention – now as an all-digital enterprise. It took a couple years, but we retooled everything after stepping away from printed magazines once our July 2011 edition went into the mail, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I look forward to celebrating their anniversary with my Genesis friends in April, then do some private celebrating here in May. Twenty years ago that month, I conjured up WaterShapes while sitting in my spa on a warm spring evening with a tall, frozen margarita within reach. I knew before the plastic glass was drained that this was the Big Idea I’d been looking for when I’d started my publishing company a couple years earlier.

I knew as well that reaching out to Vance, Brian, Skip and David would be critical, and I cherish my memories of phone conversations and then of face-to-face meetings that helped me and WaterShapes’ founding editor, Eric Herman, align our thought processes and set our sights even higher than we ever figured we could.

It’s been an awesome ride. Thanks for your support through the years and dedication to the proposition that excellence in design, engineering and construction is not only a worthy, but also an attainable and essential goal.

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The Value in Sharing

By Jim McCloskey

With this edition of the newsletter, we wrap up two important article sets at once, with the second and final part of Robert Mikula’s and Simon Gardiner’s coverage of fountains as resources for civic participation and the last in Graham Orme’s four-part exploration of techniques for lighting pools, spas and other watershapes.

In the first instance, I have always enjoyed working with people who have a sense of the Big Picture as well as the insight and ability to explain it in ways that make sense and carry us all along for the ride. Rob and Simon have presented their perspectives on the machinations of fountain design in such a clear, down-to-earth manner that it’s possible, I think, to generalize their outlook well beyond the public fountains that form the core of their discussion.

Take, as one small example, their observation that stakeholder buy-in is more often than not the key to having a fountain accepted as part of a grander development. Seems obvious enough, but they define so many layers and nuances in the first article that when you reach the case studies in the second one, you understand the practicalities and structures involved in bringing ambitious projects to fruition – the many small persuasions that lead to pursuit of one major project.

Let’s scale that down to a backyard pool or pond: There’s an equivalent process of identifying not only the decision-maker, but also figuring out ways to work with those who surround that key individual to make the design work on multiple levels. What Mikula and Gardiner are discussing is, of course, on a much bigger stage with many more constituencies and many more opportunities for misperceptions, missteps and misalignments, but ultimately it’s not so dissimilar.

And the challenge they face is much larger: To draw a parallel, imagine what it would be like if, as a residential pool designer, your plans had to meet the approval of mom and dad as well as their aunts, uncles, siblings, parents and neighbors – not to mention a panel consisting of their kids’ friends and their parents. Getting anything done would be something of a miracle, and it’s at this point I see the rationale for getting as involved in the community as Rob and Simon advise if you want to make headway in the realm of municipal watershaping.

Nonetheless, their experience suggests the value of being somewhat more inclusive in designing, for example, residential pools: The more voices you listen to, the better able you are to turn a client’s backyard into something special – particularly if the intention is to keep the kids close to home and turn the poolscape into a social hub.

It’s a variety of philosophical discourse that makes me happy as an editor and publisher: Mikula and Gardiner know their business, and their willingness to share their insights is both generous and valuable.

Graham Orme’s look at lighting techniques for common watershape types and configurations is another example of this generosity and value: By going into such detail, Graham has done for watershapers what prominent television chefs did for cooking in that great stretch years ago when cable television was more about being informative and instructive rather than competitive and entertaining.

In the same way chef Emeril Lagasse made me confident that I could improvise once I knew the basics of a recipe or class of recipes, Orme has shared enough granular information that the process of lighting a pool or spa or fountain or even a pond is less of a mystery. Like the purveyor of a cookbook, he’s shared a bag of ingredients and measurements and a set of general principles. Now it’s your turn to take and interpret that information and apply it given the idiosyncrasies and specific characteristics of your own projects.

It’s all about patterns and possibilities, and these two sets of articles – one philosophical, the other practical – make key watershaping challenges interesting and maybe even fun in ways I hadn’t perceived before. This is the kind of article that keeps me going and makes me proud to keep doing what we’ve done with WaterShapes for nearly 20 years.

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Swimming’s Lessons

 

One of my strongest (and best) childhood memories is of the first time I managed to swim the full length of an Olympic-size swimming pool. Another of my strongest (and saddest) youthful recollections is of the first time I tried swimming that distance – and failed miserably: I started out well but found myself desperately dog-paddling to the side of the pool just after passing the halfway point.

As was noted by Wallace J. Nichols in the book Blue Mind (2014), humans love being close to and involved with water, no matter whether it’s an ocean, a river, a lake, a reservoir or a pond. That makes swimming as much an essential survival skill as it is a wonderful form of exercise and recreation – invaluable to all of us.

I was six years old when I “mastered” that skill. It seems young to me in retrospect but makes sense given the fact that we lived about a mile away from the Pacific Ocean: Learning how to swim – and swim well – was the key to becoming independent and to enjoying time at the beach.

Thinking back, I recall several lessons about independence wrapped up in the aquatic-education portion of long-ago summers. My mother accompanied me to my first week of swim lessons, then handed the chore off to my older sister. That arrangement didn’t last long, so a couple weeks into the summer I was riding a bicycle on my lonesome for the two miles or so it took to get to the municipal pool. It was actually a pretty big deal, because it involved crossing two busy streets on the way.

I also had to take care of a towel and the nickel I needed to pay for admission to the pool. So much responsibility! So many new experiences! That first summer, I didn’t get far enough into the program to qualify beyond the “minnow” stage. I’d made it past “guppy,” which was cool, but I couldn’t yet swim the width of the big pool and so didn’t qualify to become a “fish.”

The next summer, however, I was a minnow for less than a week and, as a fish, faced a big hurdle in making it to “flying fish,” which was the level at which the pool’s tantalizing diving board became part of the fun. To advance, I needed to be able to swim the full length of the pool – and as I mentioned above, failed at it the first time.

I didn’t want to fail again, so I spent the rest of the day at the pool (a nickel bought a lot of pool time back in those days!) swimming my arms and legs off. By the time the pool closed, I was swimming side to side with few problems and figured I was ready for another competency test before my next lesson – but it was not to be: My guess is that I was so tight from past exertions that it just wasn’t in the cards.

But on the occasion of my next lesson, the wonders never ceased: I swam the pool’s full length, became a flying fish, and when it was free time at the end of the lesson, I was allowed to use the diving board. What a great day!

I bring all of this up because, first, the memories are so strong and clear that I’ve always figured this was one of my life’s shaping experiences. Second, and with great concern, I’ve spent a lot of time in the world of aquatics worrying that kids today lack the same sort of cheap, easy access to good swimming pools and effective swimming lessons that I had.

The challenge, it seems, is mainly economic: I know approximately what it’s costing to get my granddaughter ready for a lifetime of swimming, and believe me, it’s far more than what my parents paid for lessons for me and my five siblings combined, many times over – and even allowing for nearly 60 years of inflation!

Yes, there are communities where learn-to-swim programs are within reach, but I wonder how many parents can afford lessons in places where public pools of the sort I grew up with need to pull their weight these days to stay in operation and always seem to struggle to do so.

As the weather warms and summer draws near, let’s all of us who are involved in watershaping think about what we can do in our communities to put swimming skills within everyone’s reach. Please investigate local programs that sponsor or subsidize lessons, make donations, volunteer time – do what you can to help future generations value swimming as a lifetime, necessary skill and as a great way to exercise and have fun.

When all is said and done, to thrive in the long run we in water-oriented businesses need children to grow up loving water – and watershapes – as much as we do!

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Pure Persuasion

By Jim McCloskey

Early on January 10 – within an hour of unveiling the third of John Cohen’s trio of articles on his quest to deliver toxin-free pool and spa water to his clients – I heard from a reader who wanted us to repeat all of the articles as one document to make it easier to share with clients who might be interested.

“I want to let them know what a challenge it is to get rid of the stuff they don’t want,” he wrote. “I also want to let them know that it’s possible if that’s what they really want and are ready to pay for it.”

I filed that one away, because the sort of republication he was requesting is something we haven’t done before. It just seemed unnecessary. But then a second request came in from another reader, then a third – and by the end of the day, I’d decided that maybe a fresh, comprehensive version of the series wasn’t such a bad idea.

You can link to the combined articles through this edition of our newsletter by clicking its link or, more directly, by clicking here. All three parts are included, the only new element being a fresh headline that suggests the more comprehensive nature of the text.

In rereading everything to make certain the recombination process hadn’t disrupted or dropped anything, I was impressed all over again by the ambition and extent of John’s quest as well as by his willingness to share what he’s learned. It’s all about persistence and curiosity – and his utter refusal to compromise his essential mission of delivering pure, sustainable water to more of his clients.

The combined text you see here is lengthy and rich in detail, but it’s actually a condensation of a much longer document I’ve taken to calling “The Cohen Manifesto” because of its zeal and raw determination. The longer version ventures into additional hypotheses and speculations and digs more deeply into the philosophy John has developed and applied along the way. He intends to publish the full text on his Web site sometime soon; when it’s up and running, I’ll publish a link.

In the meantime, more than 1,000 of you have read the original trio of articles. I’m hoping that this unusual republication will help spread the word and get even more people involved with this emerging and important approach to watershaping.

***

It’s coincidental that the “Essential” article highlighted in this newsletter is one from 2005 about the efforts of a pond builder to make water utterly clear without the use of chemicals: We’d scheduled it into this edition of the newsletter several weeks before we made a final decision about when to rerun John Cohen’s articles.

The pond-making process described by George Forni in “A Crystal-Clear Mandate” harmonizes neatly with its pool/spa companion: As in all critical systems, it seldom hurts to over-engineer – and that’s just what Forni and his associates did by beefing up filtration systems and supplementing a large-scale biofiltration approach with sand filtration while using twice the usual count of skimmers to maximize the turnover rate.

I like where all of this has been heading for years now: Could clear, clean water with zero chemical/toxin-free intervention become an industry-sweeping standard?

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Chasing Inspiration

By Jim McCloskey

You should take a look at the article linked below: It’s about a Florida home called Woodsong that architect Alfred Browning Parker built for himself in 1968. I know that if the article had not mentioned the year and named the architect, I would’ve thought this place was of more recent vintage.

Parker, who passed away in 2011 at the ripe old age of 94, was among the many disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright and a firm believer in the use of organic forms in architecture. But it’s clear his style was also a direct response to living and working in Miami and having the opportunity to exercise the potential it offered for year-round indoor/outdoor living. The result with Woodsong is a home that includes a 90-foot-long pool as well as a koi lagoon, waterfalls, tons of glass, easy flow from the interior to the exterior, rich woods and lush tropical plantings.

When I first saw the photographs, I was caught up short by the round, spillover waterfeature because it looked like a contemporary spa: I figured it had to be a later addition. But in studying the images, I persuaded myself otherwise because of how thoroughly integrated the feature is within the home’s structure. My best guess now is that, rather than being a spa, it’s a fountain basin with an innovative spillover feature, which would make it more suitable and likely in a 1968 project.

Either way – fountain or pioneering spa – it’s a cool touch with its mirroring cutout to the sky above. And there are other details here worthy of mention, from the long overhang that traces the path of the narrow pool to the way Parker worked around the existing trees and fully embraced keeping them as a precondition for his own work on site. Gorgeous, and inspiring.

To see the article and its nice collection of images, click here.

***

Pondering Woodsong while on a long walk the other day, my thoughts flowed back to the late 1980s and early ’90s, when vanishing-edge pools swept into our collective consciousness. Most people who started working with them thought they’d originated in France as a very recent design development.

Then I ambled along to the late 1990s and a time when all sorts of interesting work was being done by fountain companies who were finding innovative, dramatic ways to make water leap, spurt and dance with light and in time to music. Many people thought this was all pretty much brand-new technology, largely unprecedented.

And then I stepped toward the mid-2000s, a time when the watershaping world was agog at the advent of variable-frequency drive pumps. Again, many assumed this was all-new technology – maybe even something tailor-made to meet the perceived needs of watershape designers and builders and their energy-aware clients.

As I stepped along the trail, I pulled up other examples of perceived breakthroughs of either a design or technological sort, but the three mentioned above will do here: As you may have guessed by the way I slanted things in describing them, the conventional wisdom we drummed up about their “novelty” in all three cases was off the mark.

I was there with Skip Phillips, Brian Van Bower and David Tisherman, for instance, when we visited a home built in Los Angeles in 1958 by John Lautner that had a slick vanishing-edge detail a good 25 or 30 years before they started showing up in France and, even later, in the United States. Leaping jets of all descriptions are found in Renaissance gardens of 16th-century Italy – and in Moorish Spain hundreds of years before that. Lighting and music became part of fountain packages more than a century ago, and it didn’t take much research to learn that General Electric took out its patent on a variable-frequency drive motor in 1910.

It all goes to show that when it comes to ideas, there’s not much that’s ever really “new” under the sun – but that’s not my main point here. Instead, what seeing Parker’s Woodsong reminded me of is that timing is everything and “discovery” is often accidental.

I don’t know where John Lautner found the inspiration for the edge treatment at Silvertop; I don’t know what led Renaissance or Moorish architects to think of water in vertical terms; and I don’t know who finally figured out that variable-frequency drives would be a good fit for pools and spas. But I’m grateful that vanishing edges, choreographed fountains and variable-speed pumps have spread far and wide – and, as important, are indelibly here to stay.

What’s next? Well, I’m pulling for someone to spot cool details in Woodsong that deserve broader exposure and application. Might we find the next vanishing edge in his achievement and the way it mixes Mid-Century Modern lines with contemporary outdoor-room sensibilities? Gorgeous, and inspiring.

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Satisfying Feedback

 

By Jim McCloskey

It’s happened before: I’ll write one of these blogs or a Travelogue, and within a few minutes of releasing the newsletter a reader will send me something that either adds to, explains or (rarely, thank goodness) contradicts something I’ve written.

Back in December, for instance, I wrote about the regional differences in the ways watershapes appear in winter, noting that my pool in southern California may well be at its visual best in our cool months and contrasting that with the grave aesthetic effects winterizing has on watershapes of all forms where deep freezes are a factor (click here).

I expected some blowback for calling out winterized pools, but none developed. I did, however, get a note from an old friend who commented on the logistics of celebrating Thanksgiving on the road: He’d tried the same thing a couple years ago when his family started to disperse across the country and, as we had, rented a big house and tried to stage things as though the feast were being held in the family home.

It didn’t work that way, he wrote: “You had good luck in your kitchen, but ours wasn’t up to it and we ended up spending a lot to get all of the pots and pans and tools we needed. And the thermostat in the oven was off by quite a bit, so we had to watch like hawks to make sure things actually cooked.

“I know now that I should have asked tons of questions before picking a place to stay. As it was, there was so much drama that we decided we’d never do it again. But then I saw your article and it gave me hope. It’s a nice idea for preserving family traditions, but if we ever do it again I want to make sure the kitchen is ready for us. Either that,” he concluded, “or call in a caterer!”

That’s interesting: Our experience was truly satisfactory as far as the kitchen and overall experience went, but we also were so exhausted that we decided hiring a caterer would be just the ticket next time.

***

Shortly after my Travelogue on the Machine de Marly appeared in December, a reader sent me an article titled, “That time when the fountains at the Gardens of Versailles consumed more water than the entire city of Paris” – a bit ungainly but certainly descriptive! It was published on The Vintage News web site (click here) and provided a much more detailed history of the Versailles fountains than I offered in my own brief article (click here).

The hydrology of Versailles is a fascinating tale of excess, with the desire to have abundant water and flowing fountains putting huge (and ultimately unattainable) demands on the local water infrastructure. And even the grand Machine de Marly was inadequate: At peak capacity, it couldn’t provide enough water to run all of Versailles’ fountains at once, and the article’s writer concludes by reporting that even today, with modern pumps, water supply is still an issue.

I can only admire the ingenuity of the work-arounds, which were covered in fine detail in The Vintage News: “Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the French Minister of Finances and notable politician of that period, came up with a system by which the people who maintained the fountains would signal each other with whistles upon the approach of the king. The whistle was a sign that if a fountain was off in that moment, it needed to be turned on. Once Louis XIV had passed that particular operating fountain, that fountain would go off and a whistle would be blown from there to signal for the next one to be turned on.”

In an era when “off with their heads” was more than a colorful phrase, I can only imagine the tension on the grounds when the king decided to venture into the gardens – which he apparently did with staff-discomfiting frequency.

***

My thanks to readers for both the suggestion and the amplification: I love these exchanges, believe me!

 

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