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By Mark Holden

MarkHoldenElephantPosteriorHow many times have we seen a pile of artificial rocks plopped on the end or along the side of a freeform pool, left with no visual connection to anything else in the space? The answer, of course, is "countless times" - which prompts a far more important question: why?

Why are we still seeing watershapes installed with edges that look to my eyes to be lumpy pachyderm posteriors? And why are these visual abominations so often featured in advertisements, trade publications and design competitions?

I suppose those same questions could be asked about vanishing edges or any other trendy look, but to me these lumps of concrete constitute the most obviously repulsive design trend of the past 30 years.

And not only does this look refuse to disappear, but it also seems to be accepted by professionals who really should know better. I say enough is enough and that it's long past time that we should be saved from these visual atrocities. The Tiki-pool volcano emperor is wearing no clothes, and we should all let him know!


Although it does commonly appear in these offending settings, let me make it clear that I have no particular beef with artificial rockwork. Those who do well in reproducing naturalistic elements deserve our respect and should be rewarded for their skills. My problem is with those who've convinced themselves that plopping a simple pile of faux rocks down by any nonlinear pool instantly creates a private paradise.

And truth be told, plenty of people who bring in real rock have no idea what they're doing, either, although these offenses are rarer. What bugs me specifically about so much faux rockwork is that it isn't elegant, tropical, convincing or appropriate, and all too often it relates to absolutely nothing in the setting. As such, it fails to make any sort of design statement or create any sense of visual harmony.

Still, despite the fact that people writing for WaterShapes have railed against these abominations for more than a dozen years now, we continue to be forced to endure them and are still occasionally told that they're cute, neat, fun and inventive. That line may have worked in the 1980s, when we were all younger and didn't know any better, but it's no good now and should have been combed out our collective hair long ago.

I can only conclude that this is further evidence that we are cursed by product- or situation-oriented design to the detriment of artisan-based design. The elephant-butt pools bear striking testimony to the fact that our industry has perpetuated the notion that simply shoving random objects/products/stuff into environments is the way to go instead of developing and refining design ideas and then finding solutions to fulfill the challenges at hand.

It would be one thing if people in this industry could truly say they were committing these visual crimes at the behest of insistent clients and then laid low knowing a given project was visually substandard. But what I see instead are whole flocks of watershapers who proudly submit these projects to trade magazines, submit them to suppliers for use in ads and proudly offer them for consideration in design competitions. It's apparent, in other words, that at least some of us see these projects as being good and worthy of wide praise.

I was stunned last fall, while judging what I consider to be a prestigious awards program, to find not one but two submitted projects that were just average pools at best, with nondescript "formations" set on one side and water oozing from the top. Why does this happen? Why does this keep happening?


I'm certain there are situations in which the property owner, the general contractor or the developer believes that packaging one of these design elements with a swimming pool is a sound idea because they've seen it before - monkey see, monkey do. What I'd like to suggest is that as design professionals, we have a responsibility to display enough gumption, courage, skill and power of our convictions to guide clients away from this approach.

As a baseline, we should all know that when an object is selected for installation well before a quality design is created, you've already put opportunities to make visual and emotional connections within the space on the chopping block.

By contrast, if you know a client wants a lagoon-style pool, then talk about infusing the water with areas of lush landscaping, tropical color palettes and materials, appropriate landscape decorations, thatched huts, romantic seating areas, hammocks, torches, a beach entry and maybe some natural or artificial rockwork as a complimentary element.

But for crying out loud, don't allow yourself or your clients to think that piling up an artificial rock formation on one end of the pool and fitting it with a razor-edge fall spilling over the opening of a square grotto will ultimately remind anyone of the pool complex at Maui's Hyatt Regency Hotel. It just doesn't work, and it isn't satisfactory on any level.

And I'm not saying that these elephant-fanny rocks don't have their place. If a client sincerely wants a kitschy, 1950s-style, over-the-top Hawaii 5-O campout setting, I could see using the lump of concrete in a way of reinforcing the thematic artificiality and excessiveness. Or where there is topography that supports a "natural" stream effect flowing into a pool, I can also see using these materials. But when I see a kidney-shaped pool with the elephants' backsides lined up on the bond beam, it's game over: The work is a failure.


I have advocated the need for artisan-based design over product-based specification for decades now, both in print and in classrooms, which makes sense because this line of instruction is at the core of most architectural design programs. You figure out first what you want to do, then you figure out how to do it. It's a method of design that typically does not lead to blobs on the edges of pools.

So how do we change course and mend our ways? Well, I've sometimes tried ridicule and sarcasm, but I've learned that making fun of someone's past accomplishments usually produces animosity rather than progress. So now I do all I can to lead by example and to teach what I believe to students at every opportunity.

The whole point of my Genesis 3 art history classes and my work in university settings is to center discussions on inclining watershapers' design sensibilities toward more holistic and dynamic perspectives. I show examples of what I consider to be the pinnacles of watershaping in slideshow presentations and reinforce those concepts through workshops and design sessions.

When we see great work, embrace it and praise it as part of our own creative value system, wonderful things can happen. By contrast, if we linger in clich├ęs and lazy solutions borne of lower thinking, then we're destined to repeat patterns of work we should've set aside long ago.

I would enjoy hearing if you think I'm being too hard on poolside-blob waterfeatures of if I haven't been nearly harsh enough. I would also be delighted to read alternative perspectives. It's a dialogue that will, I think, help all of us.

- M.H.

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

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  • Guest - Lynn Wilhelm

    Hear, hear, Mark! I absolutely detest the mound-of-rock type of waterfeatures/falls (fake or not). The pachyderm posterior image for them is so appropriate. I will steal that term.

    In two notable projects, I have fought others to make sure the waterfeature did not turn out that way. The first was in a garden that sloped away from the house on a treed lot. My boss at the time thought the waterfall should face the house. I told him I would never design a waterfeature that "flows uphill" unless we built a mountain behind it. I designed a gorgeous flowing stream with falls and a patio raised a few feet above a pond below.

    Next was an indoor pool. The homeowner wanted a stone (only real stone) waterfeature at the edge of the pool. I said the only way to design this would be to include plenty of stone throughout the room. It was hard to do (included a dry fit of the stone at the stone supplier) and still looks a little lumpy - but there are several waterfall areas, including one through a great boulder with a hole in it. I designed the whole indoor space and was happy with the result.

    Lynn Wilhelm
    Linden Landscape Design

  • Guest - Duwaine Joiner

    I completely agree with Mr. Holden. Suburbs are drowning in these kinds of pools and it is a shame. For the same money, a much more appropriate and aesthetic solution can be provided.

    Duwaine Joiner
    Mycoskie McInnis Associates

  • Guest - Dominic Shaw

    I, too, have seen unfortunate installations where stone - both natural and artificial - has been used to create elements that certainly seem out of place. I describe it as the Limestone Bird, which flew over your yard and pooped on your deck. While unsightly and a challenge to our design senses, installations like these can always be improved, as can almost any design if you look at it long enough.

    I take issue with the assumption that these installations, however offending to designers, are not exactly what the owners wanted in the first place. As designers, we should remember that not every client or builder is studied in the art of design or would even appreciate it if they saw it. There is difference between bad design and bad taste.

    I often get into discussions with architects and designers about details of specific elements, and we sometimes have to remind ourselves that while those little things are important to us and our sense of design, almost no one in the public realm would even notice them. I know that the backyard is a different environment, as the client is likely to spend more time there, but what is good design?

    You mention the lagoon-style pool with the tiki torches, thatched huts and the like. It seems to me that this style of design can be just as kitschy as the artificial rock. As a matter of fact, it was this part of your article that made me write.

    I live in the Texas hill country outside of Austin, and my neighbor has a very fine white limestone contemporary home. In the backyard they have a pool that is exactly as you described. Tropical plants (many dead from this year's freeze), torches, hammock, thatched palapa with outdoor kitchen, freeform pool with cascading waterfall and grotto with sheet fall, all surrounded by numerous beautiful Texas live oaks. Totally out of context with the house and, in my opinion, the hill country. I hate it.

    However, when our kids get together and swim, they love it just because of the waterfall that you can jump off of and the grotto you can swim into. Seems like fun is still OK as a design requirement. It was not meant to remind anyone of the Hyatt at Maui, and it does work for them: It succeeds in creating a visual and emotional connection of their vision for their backyard. Was this bad design? The clients are happy, the site works for what they wanted...hmmm.

    I have seen over the years in WaterShapes the sharing of ideas and spreading of knowledge that I wholeheartedly embrace and believe is a benefit to all. I understand the idea of raising the bar and executing the best work you possibly can. But I also understand the realities of budgets, expectations, client wishes and differences in perception. I have read with interest when authors drop names like Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Barragan and others, and know that while they can be an inspiration to us as designers, they do not epitomize design.

    Wright's architecture was great and his detailing fantastic, but his interiors were Spartan and his kitchens downright small. Was this bad design? You only need to Google "bad architecture" to find examples of designers thinking like artists and missing the mark.

    I don't do many residential projects, but I have commented on designs that include droppings from the Limestone Bird, and I always suggest that instead of using stone in only one place, use it all over to give it context. A good suggestion to be sure, but not much help when attached to a brick veneer home.

    My main point though, is that while as designers we strive for the best for our clients, if someone comes to you with a commission for their pool and wants a grotto on a flat site, do you turn them down because you cannot obtain a quality design with an element picked before you start? Do you dissuade them of their wishes and talk them into a different design that is artisan-based? I always thought that the design process is that you listen to what your client wants and then you figure out how to do that within their expectations and budget.

    Many of us are privileged to work at the high ends of our markets, but that does not mean that the vast majority of builders and designers working at these other levels are guilty of not providing their clients with what they want or can afford - or are, as you put it, guilty of lower thinking. Sometimes that plop of rocks is what works for the owner and we just have to live with it.

    Dominic Shaw
    Waterline Studios, Inc.

  • Guest - Zane Finley

    I'm not as kind. For years, I've said [the rock installations] look like a rained-on dog turd (that's the PG way of saying it). So when is the class to teach the right way?

    Zane Finley
    Redding Pool & Concrete Design

  • Guest - Barry Justus

    Hi, Mark. I absolutely agree with you. I just wrote an article on basically the same topic for Pool and Spa Marketing (March 2011). I wanted to call it "the pile-of-rocks waterfeature article," but the editors called it "using water as a design element." I threw myself under the bus by using photos of projects we built 10-15 years ago, (and some newer nice stuff). I think you are preaching to the converted on a WaterShapes forum. If you think the projects are bad in the States, you should take a look north of the border [Canada]!!

    Barry Justus
    Poolscape Inc.

  • Guest - Barry Justus

    Hi, Mark. I absolutely agree with you. I just wrote an article on basically the same topic for Pool and Spa Marketing (March 2011). I wanted to call it "the pile-of-rocks waterfeature article," but the editors called it "using water as a design element." I threw myself under the bus by using photos of projects we built 10-15 years ago, (and some newer nice stuff). I think you are preaching to the converted on a WaterShapes forum. If you think the projects are bad in the States, you should take a look north of the border [Canada]!!

    Barry Justus
    Poolscape Inc.

  • Guest - Anonymous response

    I agree 100% with your comments. I have found it difficult with a few clients who strongly request that "pile of rocks at the end/side of the pool" to move them away from that. Should I bow my head in shame, collect the check and include the "PORs" in the design?


  • Guest - Jim Gootee

    I absolutely agree with your "blob" comments. I am tired of this "effect." However, we have other companies in this area that love to sell it very cheaply - and they do, in a fashion we call the "bowling ball" effect, with almost all the rocks (real ones) the same size and ridiculous looking. Truly, these companies have no pride in their results. All they care about is the sale. The unknowing customers most times only care about the low prices until it's done.

    We really try hard to show prospective clients many pictures of different looks and most importantly let them know that the surrounding landscaping is critical for their finished, integrated look. Over 20 years of doing this and we are trying to get clients (what few of them there still are) to shift to more attractive combinations of features - both water and designs that make sense. We'll continue to battle the blobs and put beautiful looks together for clients. But sometimes, unbelievably, it's the '50s/'80s look that they want.

    Jim Gootee
    American Pools