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It’s 17.00 in Geneva and it’s business as usual at the Bains des Pâquis. Bronzed students are swimming their umpteenth lap, bankers and UN workers turn up, still suited, and quickly kick off their shoes. Waiters dish out trays of oysters and the water in the elderly card players’ carafe miraculously turns to chardonnay.

The city’s much-loved public baths sit on the northern front of Lake Geneva and, while today it’s hot, it remains a lively place year-round. Yet for all its vivacity, its appearance is modest – a jetty flanked by a beach on one side and a set of single-storey buildings that encompasses sunbathing platforms, a sauna and a restaurant on the other – and that’s the point. The complex keeps itself architecturally mum so as not to overshadow its surrounds. “It’s all about the lake and your connection with nature,” says Claude Diserens, an 84-year-old Genevan who learnt to swim here when he was eight.

The Bains have been public since 1890 and for a wealthy city like Geneva, where not everything is accessible to everyone, they are a uniquely democratic institution: sun, swimming and a healthy lifestyle – all for an entry fee of just chf2 (€1.75). It is this egalitarian principle that architect Henry Roche and engineer Louis Archinard sought to embody in 1932 when they transformed the old wooden complex into its current, rationalist design.

The emphasis here is on minimalism, comfort and unity with nature. “It’s a structure of simple and pure form; the subtle, sunken-level design of the buildings, so as not to obscure views of the lake, is appealing and something I always point out to my students,” says Philippe Merier, a professor of architectural theory at Geneva’s Hepia school of architecture. The changing rooms are private, not communal – a rarity for public baths designed in the early 20th century; sunbathing platforms face west by southwest for maximum sunlight; and entry to the water is via a set of low, gentle steps where possible, softening the barrier between the manmade and the natural. “From almost every angle we are open to nature, which creates this unique mingling of flora and aquatic birdlife alongside our human habitation,” says Breckinridge Knapp, vice-president of L’Association d’usagers des Bains des Pâquis, which oversees the running of the baths.

The economic, modern choice of material is also telling of the progressive era: the entire complex is built on 513 prefabricated concrete pillars. The material pops its head up from beneath the water here and there, most notably in the form of the fence-like rotunda that encircles the swimming perimeter and the three-tier diving platform crowned by red sans-serif letters that spell poésie (poetry). The concrete gives the complex an unfettered honesty.

Visiting the Bains on a summer’s day leaves no doubt that the form has served the function. Genevans from all walks of life engage in all manner of pastimes here. Grey-haired gentlemen battle it out in heated games of bridge under a canopy and a sporty girl steadily navigates a paddleboard, just as an animated swimmer completes his lap. Above them, young men test their athletic prowess on a tightrope stretched over the water, to the glee of the cheering sunbathers. But it’s not just during the warmer months that the baths are a hit.

“Much of today’s thinking is how to bring these baths to life during the winter,” says Jacques Menoud, a Genevan architect who, together with Marcellin Barthassat, oversaw the renovation of the Bains in the mid-1990s and is tasked with their upkeep today. Parts of the complex are makeshift and can be repurposed according to needs. “It’s a space with great structural simplicity yet it can also accommodate a great number of purposes,” says Merier. A section of the terrace turns into extra saunas come winter and the space behind it – a simple “cabana” – becomes an indoor restaurant where patrons tuck into hearty pots of fondue. There is also talk of creating a Nordic bath, and a skating rink has already been added to further aid the winter programme. “The goal here is to use the advantages of the architecture to modernise and innovate the space for today’s needs,” says Menoud.

Yet all this might never have materialised had the city’s residents been less zealous. In the late 1980s, at a time when indoor swimming pools were popular and the cold water of the lake had somewhat fallen from grace, a municipal plan was put forward to demolish and rebuild the Bains des Pâquis, based mainly on the supposed structural instability of the underlying concrete pillars. “The aim was to give the baths a more luxurious, tourist-driven demeanour,” says Menoud – something entirely at odds with the Bains’ original philosophy.

The residents were understandably outraged and put together a committee to protect their cherished institution; it would become the very association that runs it today. More than 9,000 people signed a petition to put the matter to a referendum and an independent investigation proved that repairs would be possible and far more cost-effective than building a new structure. To fund the campaign before the plebiscite, the Association staged various parties, at which local musicians performed free of charge, all to scrape together the necessary funds. The creative period even bore a new graphic-design movement, as artists created quirky posters to disseminate the message of the campaign – the most famous of which is Emmanuel Excoffier’s image of an angry red octopus destroying the complex.

On 25 September 1988, the residents won the vote with ease. The municipality now provides sizeable funding for the baths and any hint of demolition is nothing short of high treason. “Not a single person can imagine Geneva without the Bains des Pâquis,” says Merier. Nonetheless, certain aspects of the fight to save the baths have lived on: the Association continues to put on frequent art exhibitions, poetry readings and musical events, as it once did to raise money. The most famous among them is the Aubes musicales, an annual orchestral performance given at sunrise on a summer’s day. Morgane Dufaux, who played the flute at the 2009 performance, shrugs when asked how she got involved. “You just do. The atmosphere here is infectious.”


More Swiss swimming spots:

1. Naturbad Riehen
Riehen
Bordered by handsome timber changing rooms, this bathing lake on the River Wiese, Basel, takes a natural approach to the modern swimming pool. Led by Herzog & de Meuron, the pool itself, which can accomodate 2,000 swimmers per day, uses no chemicals. Instead the crystal clear water is biologically filtered.

2. Seebad Utoquai
Zürich
The city’s first unisex baths were completed in 1890 and remain popular to this day. Designed in the Moorish style, it was intended to be something of a bathing palace built on stilts into Lake Zürich and with eye-catching domes. It remains popular, its timber decks a prime spot to soak up some rays.

3. Thermal Baths
Vals
In the remote Valsertal Valley in the Swiss Alps, Peter Zumthor created one of the world’s most beautiful bathing spots in 1996. All chiseled stone and simplicity in its form, it nestles into the site in the most natural manner, enveloping bathers in understated architectural luxury.

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