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ADS0: Rooms and Windows – Framing the Everyday Catastrophe in a City of Interiors

Asia Zwierzchowska

Asia is a London based designer. Originally from Poland, she gained her BA (Hons) in Architecture at the University of Sheffield. During her undergraduate studies, she spent a year at Technische Univesität München. Asia has gained her professional experience in London practices, and since 2018 she has worked at Stanton Williams, being involved in projects such as Museum of London and UCL East campus in Stratford. She is a winner of an international Non Architecture competition. At RCA, Asia developed her personal practice bridging art, film, technology, and architecture.

Her final work arised from a visit to Chmielnik, a little sleepy town in South Central Poland, where a ritual Jewish bathhouse was discovered under a recently closed nightclub and a slaughterhouse used during soviet times. Asia's thesis, together with her disserstation Biography of Chmielnik: Ruin in a Post-Jewish Town and media studies VR experimentation, constitutes a body of work where this seemingly mundane building becomes a start of multiple stories, of tensions and contradictions, of unresolved past and awaiting future.

House for Bathing, Dancing, and Slaughtering

Orange walls, Egyptian-stylised wallpaper and a dance pole on a podium compose the interior of a recently closed nightclub in Chmielnik, a small town in South Central Poland. Now, the room with paper hieroglyphs stuck on the wall also hosts an entrance to a recently excavated mikveh, a ritual Jewish bath house buried during the Second World War and forgotten for decades, with some of its rooms used as a slaughterhouse during the Soviet times.

The project proposes a projected House for Bathing, Dancing, and Slaughtering, which reactivates the three explicit functions found within the site, allowing them to operate simultaneously for the first time, and to confront their contradictions. The proposed House accepts and negotiates the conflicts, generating questions on relationships of architecture, heritage, and rituals. The House is a catalyser for a critical thought.

The project works with the history found within the site, accepting the past as paradigm of complexities and correlations within the history of Poland. The heritage is actively transformed and adapted to the current needs and context within the scene of contemporary Poland, building on the incremental histories found within the site. Proposing an activated form of heritage, the project opens up a discussion on possibilities of conflicts within architecture, of the uneasiness of history.

— As in a full cycle, the House arises onto the existing site through a cathedral typology, which itself evolved within previously profane spaces, now adopting its existing and proposed elements in a nightclub, to host and unify the functions through a sacred arrangement. The bathhouse becomes its own concentric temple, with its heavy history acting as a crypt. The slaughterhouse becomes a panopticon, where the process of slaughtering can be controlled and watched, with the killing floor as the central space.
— The existing shell of the building is preserved, together with the oldest of the physical heritage found within the site – the Jewish bathhouse, now reactualised to the secular needs and pleasures.
— The past is now activated, the heritage is built on.
— The House reinstitutes death into life within the building.
— The passing, so intrinsic to heritage, to time, is marked within the crossing of the naves.
— A monumental lightwell brins the natural light down the place of slaughter.
— Among the ephemeral excitements of the nightclub, the permanence of death is present.
— The three functions and their rituals, together propose a cycle of life: the purity of birth within the bathhouse, the hedonistic life within the nightclub, the slaughterhouse with permanence and death. They are re-established through dependencies between each other, together creating a form of reliance.
— The religious arrangement persists through the site. All of the acts within the building build up new understanding of their importance and links within the space. The New and Old Testament resonate within the space.
— The meat of the slaughterhouse served in the bar becomes a form of a sacrifice, exposed in its majesty in a tabernacle, turning the bar into a new altar, erecting the meaning of the actions within the building to a new reimagined form of a ritual.
— The columns and the ceiling of the bar are the reflection of the bathhouse underneath.
— The meat and the water meet within the bar.
— The nightclub answers hidden desires. With a dance floor in the nave, it becomes a form of transition, as life, celebrating profane and sacred forms of transitions, profane to sacred thresholds.
— Within the church typology, the building speaks through desires, bringing them out from the hidden. Cathedral organs bring the music into the life, celebrating it, embracing the physical, and capturing the sweat and odours within the white tiles.
— The chapels now host dance poles, here the confession of the seduction and temptation, a sacred typology that at last allows for a sexual freedom. There is no penance within the House.
— The nightclub elevates hedonistic moments to the divinity,
— The multiple axis within the building, the procession of movement allowed within the site, the overlapping materiality, unite and accommodate the tensions of architecture, of heritage, giving their conflicts and contradictions a sacral negotation, reactualised within the contemporary Poland.
— The post-Jewish bath, now appriopriated to the vernacular and secular needs of the local community, turns its previously religious functions towards leisure. Within the whiteness of the tiles, within the scaffolding and a lightwell in the centre, the House for Bathing, Dancing, and Slaughtering, emerges as a union of tensions, as a discourse on the sacred and profane, on the mundane and the extraordinary, on the past and the future.
Plan and Section

The rooms have a strong connection to an intimate human scale. Nightclubs and bathhouses are designed for an activity of the body. Objects found there are deeply connected to the body: a dance pole to move around, a bath to dive into, a well for the blood. The textured walls, floors and ceilings are tactile, stimulating the sense of touch. Traces of the past are rough, smooth, wet and cold.

The model and the video became a way to study the duality of the nightclub and the bathhouse, their contrasts and correlation with each other.

The modern and polished look of the nightclub, slightly kitsch and slightly domestic, left only recently. With its details, its hieroglyphs on the wall, its colours and a dance pole on a stage; with self-defined movement up. And the bathhouse with heavy scarring, its walls and floors marked with time; with the details taken away from it, steps to move down, to reach the water.

The spatial arrangement of the model derives from consideration of the case study, also having its influences in the history of architecture. 

— The functions within the site have never operated simultaneously. Each of the spaces is a reminder of the times it was functioning in, each points to a different culture, social and political systems, becoming a paradigm of Poland.
— There are multiple stories to be read from the objects and textures on the site. Stories of the burying, excavation, stories of rituals and pleasures, violence and traumas.
— The post-Jewish building with its new functions raises questions: Why post Jewish? Why does it take 70 years to find a buried Jewish bathhouse?
— The journey through the site starts in the nightclub. The excavated stairs lead to the main bath. The slaughter house is in the next room and from there, through a ladder up, the journey continues to a room with a big hole in the ground– a sign that the excavation might have not been finished. The last room is of an old bottler plant, with some labels still to be found on the floor.

Unique discovery in Chmielnik. That was the headline of a few local newspapers in 2016, when the finding of the mikveh, a ritual Jewish bathhouse, was shared with the public.

The site is capturing the transformation of space and times, with a gap between their narratives. The stair from the nightclub lead to the main bath, excavated in by a local businessman. The walls have cracks and scars, as the space was covered in gravel and dirt, and left in that form, when under the communist regime, the former Jewish properties were taken over by the government. The accessible rooms of the building served as a slaughter house and a bottler plant.

As of now, the building sits quietly within small streets of the town, uncertain what future will be brought onto it. Can it be its ruined state or can the building be sacralised, can it become a monument, where the time is stopped? Can it once more enter the urban life or is the past life completely erased, left only with space for the future?

And finally, can the building be projected? Can its functions be reimagined, their contradictions and conflicts alive, can they be real but almost fictional?