The city of Brussels, Europe’s capital with almost 200,000 inhabitants, is located very close to the Senne River and the Brussels-Charleroi and Brussels-Scheldt canals, at the intersection of major international maritime trade routes. Despite the city’s ties to water, for decades Brussels has been lacking in outdoor swimming facilities. Given this situation, since 2015, the POOL IS COOL collective has advocated the reintroduction of open-air swimming in Brussels. In 2021 they opened FLOW, a temporary project that represents the first new outdoor public pool built in the city in 40 years
The project was built on a triangular site next to the canal embankment and the Pierre Marchant bridge in a no man’s land that none of the various city authorities – from the road administration to the port and the environmental agency – identified as falling under their purview. The space is in a neighbourhood under transformation, in a former industrial area with an enormous potential, which, in coming years, will be turned into a mixed residential and commercial area along the canal. It is a unique piece of land that can be accessed from different heights, either from the ground or from the adjacent bridge that has been closed to vehicle traffic for years. The site also includes a pedestrian and bicycle path, a public space used for gathering and enjoying the views over the city.
Aim of the intervention
POOL IS COOL, together with the studio Decoratelier Josef Wouters, set out to create the FLOW project as a prototype and a model for more permanent solutions, with the aim of convincing the authorities to invest in the creation of more water-based recreational spaces for the citizens of Brussels. FLOW addresses the urgent need for outdoor swimming spaces in the city and offers a safe place to cool off in the summer in a place where high temperatures are expected to become more frequent.
Decoratelier Jozef Wouters, with offices near the pool site, proposed this project as a participatory effort that would offer training and temporary work for more than 50 young people from the neighbourhood, in an area with serious unemployment problems. Young people not only contributed their work, but also their opinions in debates about access to public space, making the project a point for young people to come together to discuss the needs of the community’s residents and Brussels’ citizens.
The design is based on a modular system relying on reused metal frames and reclaimed or sustainable wood. The facilities include a 17×7-metre outdoor swimming pool, shallow enough to be suitable for children, changing rooms and showers. Terraces surrounding the pool on different levels allow visitors to relax without invading the swimmers’ privacy. Additionally, the roofs can also serve as platforms or bleachers for cultural activities, and the decorative elements created by local artists give the space the feeling of being part of a water-filled dream.
In keeping with the social purpose of the project, the structure was designed to be built by many hands: a few identical wooden pieces are repeated so that their manufacture and use can be easily learned and passed on by inexperienced builders while also allowing for their disassembly and reuse in the future.
The pool was a response to the challenge of creating a place rooted in a fragile social context that would serving as an attractor for the entire region as the only public outdoor pool. To that end, FLOW hosts cultural programming and family activities (swimming lessons, sessions for women) in a radically inclusive leisure space in a very diverse Brussels neighbourhood. For questions of development and management, POOL IS COOL joined forces with organisations from different fields: architecture, social work, communication and culture. Local youth were employed to handle the pool’s everyday operations to create a feeling of shared responsibility and help the project become rooted in the neighbourhood.
During its first summer, FLOW’s reception far exceeded expectations in serving as an inclusive public space shared by different audiences of all ages. People not only showed up to swim and splash, but also to attend fitness classes, films, concerts, debates and performances, or simply to read a book in the sun.
A secondary objective, which was also successfully achieved, was to stoke a public debate on the need to introduce outdoor swimming areas in the city. The project earned a very positive reception in the press and among the administration, it highlighted the need to build more public places for swimming, and it demonstrated the initiative’s potential to reduce social inequalities and reinforce the social fabric in an urban environment.
POOL IS COOL also offers a solution to a problem that is increasingly present in cities: the need to handle high temperatures in summer and find solutions that are equitable and accessible to all citizens, especially those with more complex financial and housing situations.
[Last update: 15/11/2022]