Daring bathing house stirs Stockholmers’ emotions

Plans to build a striking new bathing house on Lake Mälaren in the middle of Stockholm are stirring up emotions in the city. For some, the proposal is a welcome injection of modern architecture; others say it will be a blot on the city's historic landscape. Kathleen Harman reports.

Stockholmers will have to wait until September to see whether or not they are to get a controversial new landmark, or more precisely, watermark. This is when planners are due to decide of the fate of plans to build the Stockholm Kallbadhus, a modern bathing house, the design of which has split the city’s inhabitants.

Stockholm’s last large-scale piece of innovative modern architecture was Globen, completed back in 1989 .The city can be notoriously conservative when it comes to planning policy, so the promoters of the Kallbadhus have a battle on their hands to get the green light on the project.

With the development being hyped as Sweden’s answer to the Sydney Opera House, the public and politicians are taking a keen interest, and the proposal has raised strong emotions in supporters and detractors alike.

The proposed new Stockholm Kallbadhus is a circular floating structure, one hundred and twenty six metres in diameter, that will be moored on Riddarfjärden, half way between Stadshuset (City Hall) and Ralambshovparken on Kungsholmen, right in the city centre. It will include a freshwater bathing area in the centre (the actual ‘kallbadhus’), and a seventy room luxury hotel around the circumference, with a public boardwalk running above it. A bar, restaurant and café completes the picture with two bridges joining the structure to the mainland.

This innovative design is the work of the prestigious architectural firm Sandell Sandberg. Fredric Benesch, one of the team of three architects involved in the project, says that while part of the inspiration is firmly rooted in traditional kallbadhus design, it is New York’s High Line, the regeneration of a disused elevated railway line into a public park, which provided the inspiration for the boardwalk.

The area in which the Kallbadhus would be located on Norr Mälarstrand has already seen its own transformation from a semi industrial quay to one of Stockholm’s trendiest areas, most notably with the recent opening of Melker Andersson’s ‘Kungsholmen’ restaurant. The argument for locating this development here is that this part of city is well served with public transport links and its proximity to the centre and Stadshuset means that it would be used by both international visitors and local residents.

But many Stockholmers remain far from convinced. Johan Karlsson, a resident of Södermalm, reflects the views of many:

“I think that Lake Mälaren is beautiful enough in itself to be a tourist attraction without the need to add an artificial structure to it. All the Kallbadhus will do is segment the lake and spoil the views,” he says.

Björn Westerberg, project manager, takes a pragmatic view to these objections, saying that building around the Lake area has always been contentious. He says, ‘When the plans for the Riksdag (Parliament) Buildings were unveiled back at the end of the nineteenth century, there was no end of complaints from the Grand Hotel that it would spoil its uninterrupted views of the Riddarfjärden.’

Apparently, however, there were also proposals in the 1960s to reclaim part of Lake for use as a public car park, so it is perhaps understandable that people are cautious when it comes to considering new civic developments.

Some also object on the grounds that that the development has the air of ‘exclusivity’ about it, a concept that runs counter to many people’s ideals of equality and Sweden’s right to roam outdoors unhindered by private property.

But Westerberg denies that the Kallbadhus will be exclusive.

“The heart of project is the bathing area, which will be open to all, costing about the same as any other municipal pool in Stockholm. The boardwalk on the top of the structure is a free, public park.”

The inclusion of the luxury hotel was actually a later addition to the plans, when the original request for state funding for the reinstatement of a traditional kallbadhus was rejected. With the hotel accommodation came the financial backing of the Nordic Hotels group, which was needed in order to get the whole project off the ground. The views from the hotel will certainly be spectacular, but you don’t have to stay there to get the benefit of the location – the public boardwalk will ensure that it will be accessible to all.

Concerns that the structure will harm the environment have also been cited in objections to the development, with the Green Party among the leading objectors.

Fredric Benesch, the architect, counters this by saying that Arup Consulting, who will manage the construction process, employs stringent environmental auditing at every point in the building process. He explains how the construction will take place:

“We hope to find a building site either on the Baltic or the Lake where we prefabricate as much of the structure as possible. It will then be floated into place in sections, with only the final assembly done onsite, to avoid disruption to the local community.”

When in place, all sewage will be piped to the mainland, and the building will use a double glazing system to self regulate its heating and cooling systems.

Benesch also points out that the relatively low height of the structure above the water line, about eight metres or so, and the reflective glass on its sides, will mean that it will sit in harmoniously in its surroundings, as opposed to having a jarring effect on the area.

If the Kallbadhus project does get the go ahead, there will apparently be an additional immediate benefit to the local environment as the city council will have to find an alternative to using the quayside for the questionable practice of dumping of dirty snow in the winter time.

But will these arguments be enough to sway public and political opinion? The jury is very much out at the moment on how the planning decision will go. But if you are in Stockholm and want to make up your own mind, the developers have a public exhibition running in the heart of the city.

Kathleen Harman