Art Deco Amalienbad – Part 1

Over the last few months (most of 2015) I have been seeking calm. Tranquillity from aspects of life. Stillness from the demands of work. But mostly escape from the noxious racket that sometimes stalks my street. Such repeated incursions into my world are not inevitable but I am increasingly pushed to seek a veneer of silence where I can find it, sometimes in quite unexpected places. Places where contemplation can flourish. Where I can hear my inner voice debating the contradictory confrontations of my own weaknesses and the morally corrupt orthodoxies of my fellow citizen. Where the fire of earth is repulsed even for a few beautiful minutes. No, not the pub – I have more noble ambitions. So where, exactly?

Haven one is public transport. Although they are not immediately known for their infusion of serenity, especially anywhere near a school, my regular bus and tram journeys seem more and more attuned as I get older to the conquest of disquiet. One good reason is they ensure I don’t have to directly deal with the Viennese driver. But similarly they are ideally prefabricated to provide transient amnesty from the everyday dramas of city life, in spite of the other passengers. Indeed, I see very little inconsistency in this – the other people part – even when some of these people seem intent on living anything but an existence governed by humility and principle.

But as a sealed public space, shame and humiliation eventually await those who flout the rules, and so “most” people accept the social conventions unless there are hormones, alcohol or Red Bull in play. This renders it quite cultivated and quiet although the night bus is a whole other horror story. But like the Stoics of Greek philosophy, putting yourself in positions of societal or intellectual discomfort sometimes is the perfect preparation for a wider sense of tolerance. If not, the tiniest things will ruin your day (true). This is the reason why it is essential to confront your brethren (and enemy) even on a bus or tram. So I can sit there, in smelling range of the spectrum of human life, plugged into music or reassuring podcast conversation, glowing with inner contentment, gazing out of the window trying to make sense of some of the highest ideals of mankind: moral enterprise, good character and what it is about people who eat kebabs on buses.

The second is the local cemetery, peaceful in every sense. Offering a ten minute window of escape which I seize once I drop off my son at school on the way to the bus-stop and its anthologies of cigarette butts. The cemetery offers a diminution in the confrontations of the increasingly narcissist world beyond its walls, where meekness and learning can be hard to find, especially in Vienna’s outer districts just after breakfast. 

During an early morning visit it is just you, some blackbirds and starlings (and a few crows) and a handful of gardeners rearranging flowers and tidying up around gravestones.

And the silence is exceptional. Sometimes I make a point of taking a small diversion to look at the memorial and graves of fallen Russian soldiers. A handful of the many thousands who fought their way into Austria in 1945 as the Second World War entered its decisive phase. No names. Just fading red stars of the old Soviet Union and me with a face as grey as a Red Army coat.

A third possibility is to escape to the inner city. Again this may seem counter-intuitive – more people, more cars, more shysters. Yet by sticking to the backstreets, empty parks, little squares, connecting passages or alleyways, immersing yourself deep in the central districts, you realise how peaceful it can be. It is also a perfect excuse to slow down and reconnect with the city and some of its most beautiful architecture which demands multiple views.Equally, the sound of the town acts as an aural camouflage where noise neutralises noise and a paradoxical equilibrium of the senses exists. Of course noise is presumed but away from the main thoroughfares it is less significant due to the geography and architectural limitations of streets designed in the days pre-dating the mass rollout of the four-wheeled combustion engine and the creatures who lurk in them. In a sense it is unobtrusive. A constant hum but in many ways reassuring and environmentally rhythmic. An attestation to the unremitting existence of city life.

But trumping all of these is a city-run, socialist swimming pool which also doubles up as Favoriten’s Art Deco masterpiece. Most of the English language accounts I have read about Amalienbad have tended to focus on the historic architecture, its aesthetic beauty or its existential connection to the working classes of 1920s Vienna. Yet these words rarely intrude on the pool and its contemporary function nearly a hundred years after it was built. And thus there is a very limited sense of what is like to swim there in 2015 and whether it still maintains the “socialist” ideals for which it was intended.

For example, in his book Only in Vienna Duncan J. D Smith describes it as:

“The pièce de resistance of Viennese swimming pools must surely be Amalienbad, which illustrates how Vienna’s socialist government of they 1920s could not only provide facilities for the people, but could do so in considerable style.”

Or alternatively, in Peter Eickhoff’s 111 Places in Vienna, the opening of the pool was about the affirmation of Viennese blue-collar identity in the 1920s and the instigation of a “concept of society and life for the working classes”. This vision centered on notions of optimism, brightness and light (typical words associated with Vienna as you know) and would manifest itself in the creation of what he calls an “anti-bourgeois culture”.

And you thought swimming was simply a few lengths, disinfecting your feet and a post swim packet of cheese footballs. Clearly, the working classes back in the twenties had more noble aspirations of body and mind than their obese, Smartphone obsessed contemporaries in 2015. So with this in mind, it’s time to pull back the curtain, fiddle with your swimming pants, adjust your goggles and test the waters. 

Continued in part 2

© RJ Barratt 2015

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