Culture

Infinity Jest

How the infinity pool became a social media status symbol.
Culture

Infinity Jest

How the infinity pool became a social media status symbol.

At the SoJo Spa Club in Edgewater, New Jersey, the rooftop infinity pool looks out over the Manhattan skyline. On a 40-degree March day, it was best viewed from the doorway to the roof deck, where the water appeared to merge with the Hudson River. Paddling to the far edge revealed a construction site ringed with a crust of dirty snow below. Obscuring part of the skyline was the netting of a defunct driving range, hanging like an old cheesecloth.

Nonetheless, in a correctly framed photograph the mystique could be easily preserved by the pool’s vanishing edge, which, when viewed from just the right angle, created the optical illusion that the spa’s pool spanned the entire Hudson river. The view, courtesy of the pool, plays a key role in SoJo’s social media marketing strategy. If you check the club’s location tag on Instagram, you’ll find an infinite scroll of shots of patrons posing and preening in the infinity pool, the choicest of which find their way over to SoJo’s own page. On Instagram, it can seem as if subject and photographer have the entire pool to themselves. In real life, as I discovered, this too is an illusion.

On the afternoon I visited, the prime social media real estate was located in the far corner of the pool, which offered the maximum amount of background. I watched several couples hog this photogenic spot in rotation, until I gave up on getting my own photo and went to check out the Himalayan salt sauna.

Vanishing edge pool design has become increasingly popular in the past decade, fueled by its visibility on social media. According to the New York Daily News and Teen Vogue, Beyoncé and Jay-Z have at least two of these pools. In September 2017, a Kim Kardashian Instagram post featuring Kim, Kylie, and Khloe garnered 2,172,499 likes after fans took it as confirmation that all three women were pregnant. In the background is an infinity pool. Coincidence? I think not.

Computer rendering of the infinity pool that will sit atop Brooklyn Tower.

Computer rendering of the infinity pool that will sit atop Brooklyn Tower.

And as the infinity pool rises in Insta-esteem, consumers are looking not just to borrow these views but to own them. Located a few blocks away from Fort Greene Park, the Brooklyn Point apartment building — set to be the borough’s tallest tower — won’t be completed until 2020. However, when it was announced that the downtown Brooklyn skyscraper would sport, as Architectural Digest put it, the “tallest infinity pool in the Western Hemisphere,” interest started pouring in. “When the pool first came out in the press, we received a ridiculous number of inquiries,” says Ari Goldstein, Senior Vice President at Extell Development Company. “We’ve had way more interest in this building because of the pool,” he adds, with a waiting list for sales appointments (now open). The condos, per Architectural Digest, are expected to sell from $840,000 to over $4 million.

“I’d say that an infinity pool is almost a requirement at a luxury hotel in 2018, especially at oceanfront properties where it’s key to make the most of the views,” says Megan Wood, an editor at Oyster, a hotel review site owned by TripAdvisor. “Everyone wants that shot where they’re alone in the infinity pool, back to the camera, looking out into the sea. A kidney-shaped pool just doesn’t bring the same drama.”

Infinity pools have gone from being a design problem tackled by ambitious landscape designers and architects to a trendy status symbol. But the infinity pool’s roots may be more humble than its devotees realize.

“In Texas they call it a negative edge, but it’s [referred to as] an infinity edge in Florida,” says international pool designer and educator Skip Phillips. Other pool professionals call it a vanishing edge, but whatever you call it, the design premise is the same: blurring the distinction between the water and what’s around it.

Nailing the effect requires solid engineering and design. At least one portion of the pool’s edge is several inches lower than the others, becoming a weir over which water overflows. It gathers in an adjacent catch basin, where it is pumped back into the pool automatically when the water gets too low to maintain the overflow effect. In between is a mechanism called a vacuum breaker, so that the pool water can’t backslide into the smaller catch basin. Plus, a filtration system because the weir tends to capture debris. Just the addition of one such edge will raise the cost of an in-ground pool by 30 percent, estimates Phillips. A variation of the infinity pool, the perimeter overflow pool, can spill over on all four sides — or, if it’s circular, a single, 360-degree edge.

The most famous infinity pool in the world is on a cantilevered platform atop Singapore’s 57-story, $480-per-night Marina Bay Sands resort, which gently curves around one side of the resort’s boat-shaped SkyPark. The entire building was designed by Moshe Safdie, the same architect behind such projects as the Salt Lake City Public Library and Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem.

Design pedigree aside, many guests are there for one reason only: the perfect Instagram photograph, achieved with arms outstretched on the vanishing edge of the pool, the Singapore skyline behind them.

“I’d say people were pretty shameless about getting the perfect photo,” says a 26-year-old graduate student who visited recently. “There was one girl who told me she had been back two days in a row to get the ideal shot. It’s pretty funny and absurd, but everyone is doing it — plus the price you paid to stay at the hotel is so high that you feel justified.” She then admits, “I was definitely one of those shameless individuals.”

Even budget travelers have tried to get in on the cache. The Straits Times — an English-language newspaper in Singapore — interviewed two backpackers who snuck into the pool to swim and take pictures. “Their modus operandi included taking bathrobes from unattended housekeeping carts and fooling the hotel staff at the pool’s entrances,” the paper reports. “To prevent copycats, [we] will not be providing full details of their misdeeds.”

The infinity pool at Marina Bay Sands Resort offers one of the most Instagrammable views in the world.

The infinity pool at Marina Bay Sands Resort offers one of the most Instagrammable views in the world.

"Everything these days is [presented] in short bursts of visual impact,” says Sara, a former consultant and resort lover who recently visited the infinity pool at Gansevoort’s outpost in Turks and Caicos. The pool features prominently in the resort’s marketing materials — one brochure boasts, “Unwind by our infinity-edged signature pool with a lulling ocean breeze.” Sara asks, “Why are people sitting at the pool and not at the beach?”

To the Instagrammer, the pool enhances a view. For others, it represents a barrier between the traveler and authentic experience. In his essay Fiji: Reflections in the Infinity Pool, John Connell — a professor at the University of Sydney who researches tourism and migration — positions the infinity pool as part of the sanitization of tourism and the blunting of local geography:

"The infinity pool extends into the distance beyond blue seas and under blue skies — the rest of the world and its indignities are banished beyond the horizon and space is seemingly endless — until only another distant island intrudes. Purpose-built pools in small islands, naturally surrounded by water, constitute the ultimate architecture of pleasure. The sea is domesticated — harmful creatures are gone, abrasive corals are absent, waves and currents are without thread. Tourism is a sentient, stress-free, mildly emotional experience."

In Brooklyn, the developer Extell will sell clients on a view that does not yet exist but has been carefully captured by drones hovering at the exact altitude as these future swimmers. Here is your island. Here is your kingdom. Within it, Brooklyn offers a sentient, stress-free, mildly emotional experience.

Computer rendering of the infinity pool that will sit atop Brooklyn Tower.

Computer rendering of the infinity pool that will sit atop Brooklyn Tower.

Google “infinity pool” and you’ll quickly come across the uncited claim that the pools originated with something called the “Stag Fountain” at Versailles. Google “Stag Fountain” and you’ll just as quickly realize that there’s no such thing as a “Stag Fountain.” Chandra Mukerji, the author of Impossible Engineering: Technology and Territoriality on the Canal du Midi (Princeton, 2009), writes to me that this claim might reference The Cabinets of Animals, two fountains with four sets of animal statues, including a bloodhound slaying a stag. Water from the mouth of the “winning” animal falls into the upper basin, while the “losing” animal spits into the lower basin. The upper basin overflows into the lower basin along one edge, hence the vanishing edge design connection.

However, this was neither new technology nor a novel bit of engineering, says Mukerji. “It is like the settling ponds used in the Pyrenees to prevent debris from entering town water systems where debris settles behind the wall and clear water flows over it,” she writes. This same system of overflow basins was used by the Pyrenean people to do laundry in the lavoir, or communal washing space.

The Pyreneans themselves could have learned this technique from the Romans or the Moors, both of whom influenced the region, but Mukerji is open to the possibility that it was the other way around. “The Versailles fountains made [overflow pools] art and signs of good taste, but their origins are, I believe, more humble,” Mukerji says. An elite rebrand of peasant technology.

The first vanishing edge pool was introduced to the U.S.A. in the 1950’s by John Lautner, a former Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice who incorporated the design into his iconic Silvertop home in Los Angeles. According to Helena Arahuete, formerly the Chief Architect in John Lautner’s office and now the principal of Lautner Associates-Helena Arahuete Architect, Lautner was inspired by the view of L.A.’s Silver Lake Reservoir to design a pool that looked like it was overflowing into the body of water beyond. This design was nicknamed the Lautner Edge. “[The vanishing edge] became trendy over the years, but in its original version it was just a decision made because of a location and view and a desire to achieve something specific: continuity.”

To Skip Phillips, consumer-driven demand has moved the infinity pool away from its original design premise of blending with the landscape. It doesn’t have to be a vertical drop, like that at Marina Bay Sands. “The impetus for this came from the buying public,” and, he adds, “an uneducated pool industry.”

The view from the deck of the John Lautner-designed Silvertop residence, the site of the first North American infinity pool.

The view from the deck of the John Lautner-designed Silvertop residence, the site of the first North American infinity pool.

To understand how the infinity pool became a status symbol, it’s important to realize that “wellness” is a luxury commodity. According to The Global Wellness Institute, a non-profit which conducts research on the industry in addition to aggregating a mix of peer reviewed and non-reviewed evidence to support health claims, “America ranks number one for spending in four of the five market segments GWI tracks: spas, workplace wellness, wellness tourism, and wellness real estate.” It’s hard not to think of the infinity pool as a metaphor for the limitless consumption of self-improvement.

Extell’s Ari Goldstein was inspired by a trip to architect Peter Zumthor’s thermal baths in Vals, Switzerland to think of the downtown Brooklyn infinity pool as a similar opportunity. “The view and the physical experience can be transformative on your peace of mind and your body, and I think people are looking for things that contribute to their wellness,” Goldstein says. According to Phillips, Europe’s pool design tradition is based more around wellness (think: bathhouse and spa culture) while America’s is associated with outdoor living. And yet, the wellness boom marches on from SoJo to Silverlake.

Whether you believe the infinity pool came from French peasant technology or the playgrounds of royals, it’s hard to ignore that it’s become a visible part of personal branding — now mired in the public sharing of vacation photos and wellness habits.

“Bigger is always better in the US, right? So it’s this extension of making your property look bigger but there’s something sort of fantastical about it where it looks like you’re just falling off the edge of the world,” says Sara. When her parents built their home in San Diego, they opted for an infinity pool which overlooks the lake below. Each evening, her dad takes a picture of the sunset reflected in the pool.

“He couldn’t care less about social media — but he has day by day photos of his infinity pool.”

Daisy Alioto is a writer living in New York.
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