By Mark Holden
A few years ago, I made a conscious effort to turn my back on the narrow confines of the swimming pool industry and to focus instead on the profession of watershaping and its significantly broader foundation and expressive potential. It was a transition pushed both by optimism and tremendous frustration.
On the positive side, I believed at that time (and still do) that watershaping is an emergent architectural form and discipline in which true artisans may someday prevail and create as yet unimagined works of arresting beauty. What I was trying to escape was my pessimistic sense that further participation in the affairs of the traditional pool industry was largely an exercise in futility.
I’m writing about this now because, years later, not much has changed: The pool industry still merits the jaundiced view I had of it back then. Trouble is, its negative influence is still so strong that I am fearful that if we can’t somehow change the nature of the business, its presence will impede the emergence of a triumphant watershaping industry — particularly as we deal with the remnants of this lingering recession.
I was prompted to step away from the pool and spa industry because I didn’t like what I describe as its inbred business motives and tactics. Large corporations spotted opportunities and had gobbled up everything in sight, including manufacturers, distributors and periodicals — and my own hopes for progress and growth. As I saw it, diversity and originality were endangered species, as was my ability to influence change through my contacts in various roles.
I had also felt that the playing field of my chosen profession was no longer as level as it once had been, and that some of the players had become remarkably shortsighted. I have often written about and striven personally for the primacy of artisan-driven (as distinct from product-dependent) approaches to watershaping, and what I was increasingly finding were corporate forces that only cared about what they could make and market rather than about what people designing and building watershapes really needed. I hit an emotional bottom: Why bother to keep waving my flag and trying to foster lasting, positive, artisan-based change?
Well, after three years of this recession, we are all mostly overworked and broke. Opportunities are few and far between, and product prices are climbing at the same time their diversity is declining. What I can only describe as the self-interest on the part of our product-based industry has left us with none of the personal and professional skills we needed to adapt to changes in the marketplace, which is why the pool industry these days might best be described as an army of semiemployed professionals who are now cleaning water instead of shaping it. And this has happened so broadly because the corporate response has been, “Sit, starve and wait.”
My frustration peaked awhile back, and I communicated it voluminously to my close associates, who were surprised because they’d seen me as the prophet who was always so damned optimistic about watershaping’s ability to grow. I came very close to walking away from it all, but for some reason I kept leaning forward, waving my flag.
Maybe, I thought, it was my reluctance to leave behind the compatriots with whom I’ve shared my life and work for more than 20 years. Maybe I was just an irrepressible optimist who still believed, somewhere deep down, that things could still change for the better. Or maybe — and now I was getting warmer — I was beginning to see a way for the watershaping world to persevere.
But it really has gotten to the point where I have close friends — accomplished professionals who once managed $500,000 projects — who are currently maintaining them instead of designing or building new ones. I know licensed landscape architects who are waiting tables. In these troubled times, when our “profession” manifestly lacks the capacity and diversity to support all of us, it is time to expand our horizons — and I don’t mean by buying a different manufacturer’s pump.
Instead, it is time to analyze who we are and redefine what it is we do!
You have just read Part One of this article. To read Part Two, click here.
Mark Holden, founder of Holdenwater in Fullerton, Calif., is a landscape architect, landscape and pool contractor, and educator specializing in watershapes. He is a veteran contributor to WaterShapes magazine. For more information, go to www.waterarchitecture.com.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessary reflect the views of WaterShapes or its staff.