This article originally appeared on VICE France.
On returning from the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, the French swimming delegation was in a sulk. Only Alain Mosconi had succeeded in bringing back a medal – and a bronze one at that – in the 400-metre freestyle race.
The following summer, two tragic events made the French public painfully aware of the huge disparity in swimming abilities across the country. On the 18th of July 1969, 19 children aged ten to 13 drowned in a stretch of the River Loire. Exactly a month later, on the 18th of August, 14 young orphans were among 24 people who met the same fate on the French side of Lake Geneva, when a boat capsized.
These events motivated the French government to set an assignment for the ministry for youth and sports: to teach the French youth how to swim. To accomplish that goal, the ministry needed swimming pools that could be used both in winter and summer. Lots of swimming pools. The project, christened A Thousand Swimming Pools, was launched. Four-hundred architects competed with proposals for different designs that could be easily mass-produced throughout the nation.
Bernard Schoeller, who had worked with the famed modernist architect Xavier Arsène-Henry, won the bid with his proposal for a transforming, dome-covered swimming pool, which bore an uncanny resemblance to a flying saucer dotted with portholes.
Schoeller’s dome design – made up of wide curved segments that could slide under one another – allowed for a covered pool that could be opened up in good weather. The opening could rotate, following the sun’s rays as the day went by – like a sunflower, earning the model the nickname “piscine turnesol” (sunflower pool).
The government was convinced, but the proposal was costly and complex. Ultimately, the authorities settled on Schoeller’s more modest design – a similar concept, but one where the pool’s dome would only open a third of the way on its south-facing side, no longer allowing the structure to track the sun’s rays. Even without the ability to rotate, the pool’s nickname stuck.
Beginning in the early 1970s, Schoeller’s flying saucers touched down just about everywhere in the French countryside, clad in yellow, blue, orange or white plastic. The first (since destroyed) landed at Roissy-en-Brie, a small town near Paris, in 1972. Over the next ten years, 183 sunflower pools were built across the country.
Eventually, 547 pools were built under the Thousand Swimming Pools programme, with competing designs bearing similarly evocative names: “iris”, “mid-air”, “full-sunlight” and “duckling”. Outnumbered by the 196 duckling pools, the sunflower design was not the most common. And yet, it remains etched in the memories of the country’s swimmers – an enduring symbol of France’s post-war economic boom.
While the model’s uniformity and standardised installation allowed for rapid construction, the pools’ expected lifespan was only about 25 years. According to French architect Julien Béneyt, the pool’s plastic exterior aged poorly and wasted a lot of energy, resulting in up to €120,000 (£102,000) a year in operation costs. Over time, local authorities ended up replacing these iconic pools with more practical designs. Of the 183 sunflower pools that cropped up in France, few are still accessible – some of them, now abandoned, have become popular urbex spots.
Sunflower pools still attract a cult-like following. The creator of the Instagram account L’Affaire Tournesol (The Sunflower Affair) travels around France “in search of the cousins of my childhood swimming pool, for a taste of chlorine and tiles”, as they put it in the account’s bio. Similarly, the blog Architectures de Cartes Postales (Postcard Architectures) features an extensive selection of images showing sunflower pools in all their glory.
Some of the pools were even given a second life by architects across France. Evoking a mix of nostalgia and awe to this day, these remodelled sunflower pools are just some of the many tributes paid to Schoeller, who passed away last year at the age of 90.