It is ghastly cold inside of the main swimming hall; as if all the cold nights of this September have been distilled and poured straight into the building. I pull my hood over my head and shiver. “This hall was closed in 1988,” says our guide. “After the ventilation system had failed, the water temperature was usually many degrees warmer than the air temperature on Winter days.”
Stadtbad Lichtenberg, also known as Hubertusbad, was opened in 1928 to grand fanfare: Private city apartments had no bathrooms yet and the river had been declared too dirty for bathing. A bathing house for the people signaled the arrival of a new age, presumably one that smelled much better. Since it was all so new, the builders dispensed with the ornamental architecture of the time and erected a modern building housing bathtubs and showers where common people could wash off the dirt of the long workdays. Following the discriminatory logic of the time, there was also a large swimming hall for men (complete with a club room above it, where cigars could be enjoyed) and a smaller one for women. “Statistics had shown”, the guide explained, “that women at the time took fewer baths than men.” Case closed.
The bath house was hygienic, it taught people how to swim, and it checked all the boxes of that infamous German sense for order. No wonder it was a wild success:
We took a tour of the bath house to see what is left of it following its closure in 1991. You see, after the Hubertusbad had survived the war virtually unscathed, it became property of the East German government. It was kept in operation but a lack of resources also made sure that hardly any maintenance was ever done. The resident carpenter was fired in the 1970s. And what had once been a glorious swimming spot for the masses now slowly decayed, succumbing to the strain of generations of wet feet and clorine-infused humidity. It is one of those countless stories you hear about East Berlin: Things worked, but just barely. In 1991, the Stadtbad closed its doors for good.
Today, latex paint may peel off its walls, but the place nevertheless gives you the feeling of having traveled through time. Things like this simply aren’t built any more, and the architecture that was sober for its time looks stunning to our eyes. From its beautiful, ocean green tiles to its characteristically unfriendly signage1, the building is teeming with atmosphere, something I so often miss when seeing the contemporary architecture in Berlin.
This being an official tour, we were unable to do the usual kind of discovery and only saw a fraction of the building. A quick search on Wikipedia shows that it has so much more to offer: Two more floors full of treasures, even more discrimination in the form of a men-only sunroof, saunas and and endless arrays of bathtubs.
Best of all, there are actually efforts to renovate the building and make open it to the public again. It is a matter of political will, of a couple million euros and one of intent: Many other such historic bath houses in Berlin remain closed or have been changed: One is now a night club and another one is being privately renovated by a language school.
As we got on our bikes on the way home, Anika and I talked about the effort it takes to return this building to its original form and how difficult it is to run such public institutions even somewhat profitably. Thinking about it now, I am wondering when our society lost its sense that such public places not only make cities enjoyable and livable for all (which no one seems to doubt) – but that they also have their price. If the willingness to pay for such sites continues to erode, they either remain closed or be sold off to private investors – which may be good at preserving them, but also remove the accessibility that once made them so great. There’s an example in France of another such historic swimming house that was renovated and now charges a whopping $245 to get in.
Despite all the nostalgia, one must not forget that the Germany of then was a country with even more rules and formalities than today, a place seemingly without tolerance for transgressions of any kind – be it not wearing a bathing cap or jumping into the water in any way other than a straight line. ↩