Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The Flussbad Berlin project represents a bold, new imagining of what a metropolitan river can be.
Wouldn’t it be a great idea to build a big swimming pool in the courtyard of the Louvre? How about bolting diving boards onto the back of the the Metropolitan Museum of Art, so summer visitors can leap into deep basins below? These plans might sound too far far-fetched to be true, but Berlin is on the way to realizing a project that is strikingly similar.
The German capital is currently fielding a proposal to create a 750-meter (2,460-foot) swimming pool running directly past its Museum Island, a Unesco World Heritage Site that possesses what could be Europe’s heaviest concentration of art and archaeological artefacts. What makes the plan yet more striking is that the “swimming pool” (those quotation marks are merited) already exists. The new place for swimmers will not be a newly constructed basin, but an arm of Berlin’s River Spree. If the plan goes ahead, Berliners could have a sparkling clean stretch of water 15 times the length of an Olympic swimming pool to dive into every summer. There’s still an “if” there, of course, but as the plan jumps successfully through hoop after hoop, it is already well on the way to becoming reality.
This could be because the plans themselves are so watertight. They could stand as a textbook case on how to improve urban waterways, and the space they would free up for swimming is only part of their charm. The proposed bath’s actual design is also a beautifully simple bit of historically sensitive construction. Instead of the river bank’s current plunge, an extremely wide, elegant staircase would descending into the water, slanted to face west as a way of catching more evening sunshine. Here, bathers could loll by the water’s edge, paddle or swim as their fancy struck them, while in colder winters, the strip would be open for ice skating. On the other bank, the current steep drop would be maintained so that bathers have enough depth to dive into. A changing room with showers would be sunk into the bankside so as not to spoil views of historical facades.
This plan would fit in perfectly with the surroundings, placed within what remains Berlin’s most monumental architectural ensemble after the Brandenburg Gate. A spiked spur of land weighed down with a collection of monumental public buildings, the Museum Island resembles the back lot of some giant’s theatre where neoclassical maquettes have been stacked and stored. This historicist storehouse would be complemented well by the staircase’s grand sweep, humanizing a cultural complex that, for all its grandeur, can feel a little austere.
This all sounds great, but there’s a question that surely rings in everyone’s ears: Who in their right mind would dip their body in the filmy sludge of a big city’s river? The River Spree’s path before Berlin is mainly rural, but that still doesn’t mean you’d want to brush your teeth with it. Like many rivers in older European cities, it still gets swamped with sewage overflow after very heavy rain. Berlin’s plans provide a rather brilliant answer to this problem. In order to filter the water, it will create a new urban wetland and riverside park.
This is how it would work: As the river goes round the Museum Island, it splits into two arms. The wider arm will be kept free for boats—at present, mainly pleasure cruisers and the occasional barge full of grit. The narrow arm, on the other hand, would be totally overhauled. In its first stretch, the embankment will be removed, creating a small ox-bow lake that will allow the river to flow shallower and more broadly. This will open up space for a new urban park filled with trees and reed beds through which the water can meander.
After this section, the river will become a filtration channel—a long stretch of reed beds resting on gravel, both of which will clean the water before it enters the swimming area. All along this narrow arm, a new bypass sewer would be constructed to ensure that any storm overflow discharges into the river’s main arm. What is currently a promising but slightly arid space could turn into somewhere of real enchantment, with willow branches trailing in the water and wind making the reeds chatter.
So far, so good—but will it actually happen? It looks like it might. Having got the go-ahead from a feasibility study this summer, the river bath project is now applying for a chunk of a new €50 million national urbanism fund. As Berlin’s first choice of candidate for the fund, it stands a very good chance of being implemented.
When it comes to the city rivers of Europe, the Spree has always been a rather underwritten bit player. With this new approach to what a metropolitan river can be, it could finally get a chance to move center stage.