A small wrought-iron gate marks the entrance from the street, behind which a gateway leads to a long, tall room. Inside the room, people are working and moving about. Doors are slamming. Two women, each carrying a small brush, are busy removing the stumps of candles that have burnt down. A man dressed in a long, white tunic opens a door, an empty soda bottle in his hand. The room is bustling with activity, people walking about, coming and going, all intent on performing their different tasks. The only light in the room comes from the thin candles burning here and there and the waning daylight that filters down from windows high up on the eastern and western walls. The dim light makes the etchings on the floor gleam in the dark. There is no furniture, no pews to indicate a direction or prompt you to keep quiet, no hymn books and no bibles.
Lined up against each side wall are the small baths, where, having first deposited your clothes on one of the brass pegs, you lower yourself into the hot water. The water is mixed with magnesium oxide and sea salts, a sign informs you; this will relieve you of any tension and help balance your mind. Simple as that. Salts, minerals – and then a soothing calmness will descent. So here you are then, naked, submerged, idly watching other people pass in and out of the room wearing their large overcoats and furs. Taking a bath in the same room where people pass freely in and out might have felt wrong, exposed and uncomfortable, but somehow it doesn’t. The spaces themselves are so powerful, so positive in their way of framing the purpose that you instinctively go along with it and embrace the concept, with the result that everything feels natural and uninhibited.
A door in the north wall leads to a courtyard. If the weather allows, you can continue from there down to the reservoirs. These are used for ceremonies and festive events during dry spells. At other times, you can wade about, knee-deep in water, and listen to the singers when they come down from the cathedral. Then, when the reservoirs fill up, the entire courtyard becomes a sheet of water that hugs the facades, gradually rising or receding with the fluctuating water levels.
The reservoirs also extend under the building itself. Thanks to an ingenious device, parts of the floor can be raised, revealing a large expanse of water. When this happens, the whole room seems to open up, exposing the dark waters underneath. The darkness becomes a mirror that reflects the high, vaulted ceilings, so the dark water not only reminds us of the mental abyss inside us all but also emphasizes the loftiness of the soaring sky. Indeed, there is a lightness in every dark, and the building is not afraid of letting both of these aspects of life be represented.
The inner courtyard is bounded by a high wall, behind which the water treatment reservoirs spread across the former schoolyard and right down to the adjoining cross street. All this can be overlooked from above, but the public is barred from entering the area due to the sensitivity of the processes.
Parts of the building have something eternal and timeless about them. Maybe it’s the smell, the pervasive scent of minerals, salts and vapours. Or maybe it’s the fact that the entire building is off-grid, with no electricity and no internet access – an eccentric but fascinating fact that is also reflected in the design of the building. Both the space and its components must follow this principle, adapt themselves to it and be arranged so as to function exclusively by means of the natural elements fire, water and air. Other parts reflect the particular circumstances of our present time. While the columns and walls are made of some sort of cheap composite material, the floors are cast in situ. The floor pattern has a pragmatic function: its grooves, which are drilled on site according to a programmed algorithm, prevent the sometimes-wet floor from being slippery. However, the thin golden threads that gleam in the dim light makes this into something more than just a precautionary measure.
The building site is a narrow strip, sandwiched between two post offices buildings from the 1920s. Their long courtyard used to form a passage between two streets where the mail vans passed in and out. However, with no mail left to sort and deliver, this space was no longer needed and could therefore be developed for other purposes. Mail vans, mailboxes and envelopes – all these obsolete devices used to be a natural part of daily life and so obvious that no one dreamt of questioning them. But then suddenly one day, they were all gone. The thought of the vanished mail vans makes me think of how everything is in a constant state of flux, and how brief and transient a human life is.
‘Since time is all we have, we must measure its preciousness in units of freedom,’ as the philosopher Martin Hägglund reflected in his book This Life; an observation that made him question the very role of capitalism. ‘Our own lives – our only lives – are taken away from us when our time is taken from us’, he wrote, indicating that as human beings we owe it to ourselves to get rid of all the things that consume our precious time on earth. In spite of his status as a declared atheist, Hägglund inspired thoughts we normally associate with more spiritual thinkers. Including the first modest efforts at envisaging the present situation, where moving in and out of multiple dimensions has become a natural way of life. It was this development – a turn of events that none of us could have anticipated – that prompted the project. With its cross between a cathedral, a public bath and a reservoir, it provides a necessary anchor point in a world that might otherwise disintegrate into a flickering mess of parallel, half-digital lives. The steady counterweight we need to balance our existence as human beings. But as sacral as it is, it is also an active workshop that never sleeps. There is always something going on in there – someone busy sweeping, taking a bath, praying, lighting candles, drinking soft drinks, talking a little too loud or having a snooze.