From Popsicles to Hyper-consumerism: A Brief History of Israeli Swimming Pools

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Nahariya's municipal pool, 1963.
Nahariya's municipal pool, 1963.Credit: Yehuda Dorfzaun, Palphot / Reproduction by David Bachar
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

“We didn’t have a refrigerator, we didn’t have a telephone, but we did have a swimming pool.” Thus Lior Galpaz reflects on the pool designed in 1958 by his late father, the architect Moshe Galpaz. It is located in back of Lior’s house on Hasavyonim Street, in Haifa, overlooking Haifa Bay. He makes constant use of the pool to this day: He teaches swimming in it.

“It is now over 50 years old, and is still the biggest pool on the street,” Galpaz says, describing the modest pool with a grin. It also happens to be the only one on the street.

The Neve Amirim pool in Herzliya.Credit: L. Bardolin, Palphot

The elder Galpaz was born Max Kalpos in Vienna in 1914. He arrived in Palestine in 1932, by way of Poland, to compete in the Maccabiah Games as a swimmer and a water polo player, and chose to strike roots here. Galpaz studied architecture at the Technion Institute of Technology in the 1940s, and went on to become the one of the leading planners of swimming pools in Israel.

“He designed 250 pools,” says his proud son.

Moshe Galpaz retired in the 1980s, before Israeli society turned hyper-consumer. The common denominator that links all the public pools he planned – which are also featured in the two books he authored – is that they are devoid of ornamentation, advertising, over-the-top colorfulness or branches of any chain stores at the entrance.

As a child, the younger Galpaz would visit his father’s pools, and remembers how popular they were: “If one kibbutz got a pool, the kibbutz next door immediately wanted one, too.”

His favorite was the pool at the Galei Kinneret Hotel (now the Rimonim), in Tiberias, although he also cherished the one in Safed, which received an honorable mention at an international design competition. The latter seemed to grow out of the landscape, thanks to its curving contours and the natural elements around it. Alas, the pool was eventually abandoned, and was subsequently acquired by a private land developer who converted it into a horse stable.

The municipal pool in Safed, 1969.Credit: Yehuda Dorfzaun, Palphot / Reproduction by David Bachar

The need to get wet

The affinity for water among residents of the country finds its roots in Roman times, as the late geographer and Israel guidebook author Zev Vilnai wrote in his book “Sports in the Land of Israel in Ancient Times” (published by Y. Chachik, 1994): “Hot baths played an important role in the lives of the Jewish and the gentile residents. They were situated in cities and towns. Hot baths were constructed over hot-water springs flowing in the country.” Vilnai adds that some hot baths served as public bathhouses.

The immigrants who made their way to Palestine during the initial waves of Zionist immigration made do with splashing around in water cisterns and natural pools. The catalyst that led to the construction of swimming pools in Israel was the Maccabiah Games.

“At the time of the first Maccabiah, in 1932, there were no swimming pools,” relates sports historian Dr. Haim Kaufman, adding that rafts were used “to rope off swimming cribs in the sea. The first regulation pool was built just before the second Maccabiah, at Bat Galim, in 1935, and it was filled with seawater.”

That pool, part of the Bat Galim casino compound in Haifa, was designed by architect Alfred Goldberger, but over time fell into ruin. Essentially, the first swimming pool was built as part of the YMCA in Jerusalem, which was dedicated in 1933, although it was generally considered off-limits to the city’s Jews.

Hidden between the older thoroughfares of Givatayim, a suburb of Tel Aviv, is another of the country’s oldest pools. “This is the legendary Rambam Pool, which was here in the 1960s,” offers an older woman who is accompanying her two granddaughters as they leave the pastoral compound.

The Rambam pool in Givatayim, 1950.Credit: Teddy Brauner / GPO

The pool has undergone a face-lift in recent years, now bears a new name – “Sporter Givatayim” – and remains part of the fabric of its neighborhood, a community-oriented place that is accessible on foot from most parts of the city.

The man responsible for the original construction was land developer Israel Taiber, for whom, says Roni Zamler, coordinator of preservation for the Givatayim Municipality, “Rambam Hill was the focal point of his life.”

The pool Givatayim, present day. Credit: Yael Engelhart

The pool was designed by architect M. Horman and was dedicated in 1945. In his speech at that ceremony, Taiber said, “Looking after one’s physical wellbeing is an important virtue, and swimming is a health-sustaining activity, but at the same time, one must not forget to look after the wellbeing of the spirit.”

The compound holding the pool included the community center building, which housed Geva Studios, a producer of newsreels and feature movies in the 1950s and ‘60s, and the Givatayim Theater. Together, they formed a public center that united the neighborhood. The admission fee for the pool, says Zamler, was a single shilling for adults and three mils for a child.The low cost made it possible for people of all walks of society to enjoy the pool.

Pre-real estate fervor

Another legendary swimming pool is the Galei Gil in Ramat Gan, next to Givatayim, which was dedicated in a festive ceremony in August 1946, after the municipality leased the land to a private company for a period of 25 years.

“There once was an Arab orchard on this site, which during the Arab riots was prone to disturbances, and armed ambushes. Now it is a magnificent facility equipped with all the modern conveniences,” reported the daily Davar.

Galei Gil was built according to the plans of the engineers Rafael and Yehuda Magidovich and B. Granowski. A “Dr. Neuman,” of the Technion, served as an engineering consultant. Construction took five months.

In an advertisement dating to 1958, provided by preservation architect Noa Sheck, Galei Gil was described as offering “an extensive lawn for swimmers, fresh and healthy air, and games: ping pong, a special course for mini-golf, 18 holes with innovative obstacles.”

The complex, which was relatively modest in terms of its admission fees and dimensions, did not survive the real estate fervor that later overwhelmed the diamond exchange district nearby, and it closed for good in the ‘90s. In the early 2000s it was demolished and what is today the Leonardo City Tower Hotel was built in its place.

Another modest municipal pool that has vanished is the Galit Pool in Tel Aviv’s Yad Eliyahu neighborhood. It was built in the mid-’60s and “was the most popular pool in the city,” declares architect Israel Godovitz. “It was busy until 2 A.M.”

A debate in the early 2000s on the fate of the pool led to the end of Godovitz’s tenure as Tel Aviv city engineer: “The residents said, ‘We want a park,’ and the municipality wanted a tower there. The compromise was that the residents would get a park and would agree to an underground parking garage. The story had one conclusion – I, who was the city engineer, resigned from my post because of the residents who insisted on a park.”

A swimming pool in Kibbutz Kfar Giladi, 1965.Credit: Yehuda Dorfzaun, Palphot / Reproduction by David Bachar

Until the ‘90s, families that wanted to relax at a pool could choose between the old-fashioned swimming pools and the luxurious sports complexes. The demise of the two municipal pools in Ramat Gan and in Tel Aviv, in addition to deserted sports complexes like the Maccabi Pool in Ra’anana and the Hapoel Pool in Haifa, meant that the only option left was the elaborate complexes that also included pools.

Kibbutz millionaires

When Menachem Begin talked about “the millionaire kibbutzniks with their swimming pools” during his 1981 campaign, there were already quite a few pools located in cities and at hotels, but nevertheless the stigma – of millionaires enjoying pools at someone else’s expense – stuck to the kibbutzim.

Architect Freddy Kahana, a member of Kibbutz Beit Ha’emek, in the Western Galilee, and author of “Neither Village Nor City: The Architecture of Kibbutz,” told Haaretz that pools began to be built on kibbutzim following the arrival of postwar monetary reparations from Germany. The peak of construction was in the 1950s and ‘60s; all told, about 270 pools were built.

“Begin turned it into something loathsome and improper,” says Kahana, who is still angry about the criticism. “The funds [from Germany] went to specific people, who turned the money over to cooperative accounts, which served public needs. Pools are part of the conception of the kibbutz landscape; in the heat of summer the kibbutz wanted to give its members this added bonus.”

Architect Tamar Ben-Eliezer, who was born on Kibbutz Mahanayim, in the Upper Galilee, swam competitively there several decades ago, and in the pools of Kfar Blum, Misgav Am and Hagoshrim. That experience no longer exists.

“The kibbutz of that era possessed a pure innocence,” she recalls. “For instance, at Kfar Blum, where we would train, there were no advertisements. We would arrive, everyone would get organized and then we’d start to train. No one thought about shade, fancy shower rooms or lockers.”

She remembers the Mahanayim pool as the kibbutz’s meeting place: “Everything was so simple then, but now it’s completely changed. There is a huge area at the Mahanayim pool for inflatable play equipment and a corner for barbecues, and people from all over the region come there.”

One of the most important pools, in terms of Israeli sports history, was Hapoel Givat Haim, which served the leading water polo team of those years. Located on Kibbutz Givat Haim, not far from Hadera, it was built in 1953. For his part, former Israeli swimming champ Gershon Shefa asserts that “it was not one of the most important pools, it was the most important pool.” The pool was designed by his father, Pinda Shenfer (Shefa).

“He was not an architect, but he was a practical man. Kalpos wanted to design an L-shaped pool for us that would have been 33 by 25 meters, and we wanted 25 by 16,” Shefa recalls. The pool was unusual because it didn’t have a shallow end, he adds: “It began with a depth of 2.20 meters [7 feet, 2 inches], and went down to 3.50 meters [11 feet, 5 inches]. Now, following its renovation, it goes from 2 to 2.20 meters in depth.”

One-time status symbol

A critical turning point in the history of the country’s swimming pools was the establishment of the Country Club, near the Glilot intersection outside Tel Aviv, which has itself been demolished in the meantime, making way for newer real estate projects. The sports complex, which stretched over 116 dunams (29 acres) included a covered pool and an open one, tennis courts, a soccer field and basketball courts, a gym, and later on, a guest house.

Dedicated in 1965, the project was designed by veteran architect Saadia Mandel, along with two Mexican colleagues, and was ahead of its time.

“There was a diving board 10 meters high, and to the best of my recollection the water was 5-and-a-half meters deep,” Mandel notes, adding that he insisted on the pool not having a metal fence around it. “Everyone objected to my idea, so instead I came up with a type of bush that had very thick leaves and thorns that could prevent even tigers from getting through. That satisfied the planning authorities.”

Mandel believes that relaxing at a pool has always had the aura of wealth and status. “At the time, when I was planning the pool, they conducted a study and explained to me that 90 percent of the people who go to pools don’t even go in the water.” And that hasn’t changed, he adds: “Most people sit on the grass and want to see the water. The sight of water is exhilarating.”

In general, the public pools of yesteryear were larger, because they included a diving area; sometimes there would be both an Olympic pool and a smaller pool in the complex.

The renovated Gordon Pool in Tel Aviv.Credit: Moti Kimche

Based on a study of aerial photographs, Tel Aviv’s Gordon Pool, a saltwater facility located at the city’s marina, was the largest swimming pool in the country, measuring some 8 dunams (two acres), until the middle of the last decade.

Another significant turning point occurred in the late ‘60s, when high-rise towers first appeared on the Tel Aviv skyline. King David Towers, 17 stories high, was the first development to include a pool.

“It was an even larger and more magnificent complex than the Hadar Towers [on Pinkas Street], with a more central location,” writes architect Dr. Talia Margalit in her doctoral dissertation, which maps out the city’s high-rises. She adds that the complex, from the 1970s, included all of the features expected of a luxury complex, including private garden, doorman and, of course, private swimming pool. “These features subsequently appeared in all of the skyscrapers,” she adds.

Like the kibbutz pools, in their day, which were denigrated at the time of the Likud’s rise to power, the swimming pools at these residential towers have recently become a lightning rod for the vilification of the moneyed classes, due to the proliferation of such buildings in the cities.

Private residential swimming pools in fact began to proliferate as far back as the 1950s in upscale communities like Savyon and Herzliya Pituah outside Tel Aviv, but they were built far from public view. The status-symbol pool also penetrated the fashionable neighborhoods planned by architect Aharon Doron, such as Neve Amirim in Herzliya and Neve Avivim in Tel Aviv. Marketers described the latter, north Tel Aviv neighborhood as “exclusive,” and stressed its swimming pool, which was “adorned by an expansive lawn, and festooned with lounge chairs.”

In spite of the “prestigious venue,” sales agents spoke of the area as being “neighborly and communal” – something that cannot be said about today’s luxury residential complexes, such as the Akirov Towers, whose pool is concealed behind a hill and can only be seen by a mini-drone flying over.

Slowly but surely, country clubs and swimming pools equipped with water slides have spread throughout the country. The development that signaled the end of the era of simplicity was the water park at Shefayim, designed by architects Dany Bar-Kama and David Eran, and dedicated in 1984. The late architect Itamar Levitin wrote about the park, in a guidebook entitled “Swimming Pools in Israel.”

“The design of the pool is supposed to induce a feeling of the ocean among swimmers,” Levitin wrote about Shefayim. “The pool is built as a sort of fan: It starts with straight lines in one area ... and continues with rounded contours that seem to stem from the water flowing against the sides of the pool. The direct transition from the beach to water at sea level all of this creates a sensation of a source of water that is in its natural environment.”

Since that time, the list of water-park locales has grown to include Yavneh, Ashkelon, Tel Aviv, Holon and the shores of Lake Kinneret in the north. These parks are melting pots: As opposed to the neighborhood pools or even the country club complexes – and other mass entertainment venues such as movie theaters and shopping malls – today’s water parks serve a broad public throughout the country that comes to relax and have fun.

More than sport

The torrid weather may have turned Israel into a swimming pool empire, but not into a water-sports superpower. Although competition pools – or, in the professional jargon, swimming stadiums – have been built, the use of swimming pools in Israel will forever be dual: for sport and for leisure. Even the Wingate Institute (for physical education), outside Netanya, sells pool memberships to the public, for financial reasons. Other competition pools also serve the public, including those located at academic institutions or at such kibbutzim as Kfar Blum and Neot Mordechai.

The Olympic pool at Wingate, designed by architects Moshe Lofenfeld and Giora Gamerman, was dedicated in 1971. Its construction, atop a steep slope, was complicated; builders had to bring in an immense volume of earth to fill up the slope, which descends toward the Poleg stream. Due to budgetary problems, the pool did not get a roof until the 1990s. “The swimmers didn’t care – they were wet, no matter what.” Gamerman wrote in his book.

Architect Pitzo Moran, who has designed about 140 swimming pools around the country, is unhappy with the way pools have been designated for both sports and leisure. “The moment you say multi-sport or multi-functional – it becomes problematic.”

Moran remembers how the manager of the country club in Holon, the late Yair Tau, said, “If it were up to me, I would plan a pool of 24.5 meters by 49.5, to ensure that no one would hold a swimming meet there.” (The lengths of regulation competitive pools are 25 and 50 meters.) “And he was a volleyball player, not some guy who had nothing to do with sports. He fought against holding competitions at the pool.”

Wet shopping mall

Anyone who grew up in Israel in the 1980s and ‘90s remembers dithering between going to an inexpensive pool or an expensive one. The cheaper facilities were nothing more than a pool surrounded by a lawn, and the cost of admission was 10 shekels (a couple of dollars), maybe a bit more. Usually the pool was open-air and it had a little kiosk where you could buy a lemon Popsicle and a hot dog. The more expensive option was to go to one of the country clubs, with their huge lawns, lounge chairs for tanning, water slides, fitness rooms and restaurants, where entrance cost about 30 shekels.

Today, the option to choose between cheap fun and expensive fun barely exists. Nearly all pools boast the full gamut of consumer offerings: Art workshops for children, yoga, fitness gyms, etcetera, have now become an inseparable part of public pool complexes.

The pool at the Tel Aviv towers. Credit: Yael Engelhart

Architect Shlomo Gendler, who has designed a hundred or so pools over the past 35 years, describes the changes in Israelis’ consumption habits in the past two decades. “We now design two pools. The indoor pool is the only one operative in the wintertime, and in the summer both the covered pools and the open-air ones operate. When the volume of traffic increases, more families come and day camps are in operation – both kinds of pools are open.”

The Tel Aviv Towers swimming pool, near Totzeret Haaretz Street on the city’s eastern side, was designed at the start of the millennium. Entrance to the pool area is by way of a commercial center situated between the towers – meaning that even though it is a municipal pool, it has a commercial feel to it. It is barely visible from the street. Entry can cost as much as 90 shekels.

The complex is a hybrid, combining the feel of intimate municipal pools and large-scale sports compounds, which is necessitated by the fact that it is built on a relatively small lot. “Due to the limited area, we had to find a multiple-story solution,” says Gendler. On the ground level are three pools and squash courts, on the lower level are the ping-pong tables and changing rooms, on the second floor are fitness and club rooms that overlook the swimming area, and on the top floor is a grassy lawn with lounge chairs. What makes the pool unique is that part of it is open to the sky and surrounded by lawns, and in the winter the open-air area is roofed over.

The difference between the swimming pools of the past and the present is not reflected only in their functions, but also in new standards regarding both their dimensions and even the type of water that fills them. Stricter codes devised by the Ministry of Health affect both the water and the architecture. Safety regulations forbid diving, and new standards of water supply and temperature have been instituted. This means that today’s pools are less deep than they once were; the maximal depth is now two meters at most. Pools that do not meet new standards are closed down.

In big cities like Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, very few new swimming pools are being built. Conversely, in outlying areas, new pools continue to be built.

“In Lehavim or Meitar [outside Be’er Sheva],” explains architect Moran, “more than 50 percent of residents have pool memberships, and it changes the whole outlook of pool use. In Tel Aviv, one has more types of recreation – one can also go out to the port or to the beach.”

In recent years, Moran has been working together with architect Ehud Best. Moran and Best completed the construction of a new swimming pool this year in the southern city of Dimona, at a budget of some NIS 7 million. Alongside the town’s older swimming pool, they built a covered pool that can be used year-round, .

“We had to adapt the original plan in order not to harm the trees, and we also left the octagonal structures intact,” says Best, referring to the old changing rooms.

“People went to the public bathhouse,” wrote geographer Vilnai, “not only to bathe, but also to exercise and to stretch out on the heated floor to pamper and refresh the body.”

Judging from current evidence, the Jewish people have evidently not changed in the past 2,000 years. They just have more money to spend.

Images of the historic swimming pools were photographed at the Israel Architecture Archive.

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