No Running! Pia Henkel shines a light on Berlin’s 62 public pools

An avid swimmer, the photographer started the No Running series as a way of demonstrating the varied beauty and historical significance of such vital public spaces.

15 September 2022

As a city, Berlin is well known for many things: its infamous nightlight scene, its galleries, museums and its welcoming community feel for starters. What it may not be popularly known for, however, is its swimming pools. But when photographer Pia Henkel first moved to Berlin, she found herself having to move around – a lot. She's also a big swimmer, so in the process of getting to know so many different districts, Pia also found herself becoming acquainted with a number of the city’s 62 swimming pools.

What later compelled Pia to begin documenting the pools was a sign that caught her attention. “I was standing in my favourite pool in Berlin Mitte for the first time and I was immediately overwhelmed by the hall,” she details. “At the same time I saw several signs saying ‘photography prohibited’, which for me – as a photographer – was a direct trigger point.” The series also began as a means for Pia to expand her repertoire and practice. While working more conceptually before the No Running series, and mainly with people in front of the lens, she found herself seeking something new photographically; people became the pools.

When she was younger, Pia initially found herself attracted to photography mostly through boredom. “I grew up in Germany in the middle of nowhere with almost no infrastructure and always working parents,” she explains. It was when she stumbled across family photographs in her grandma’s attic that she first recalls her interest piquing; the look and feel of the images have stayed with her, and now shape her personal aesthetic. After discovering the internet and sites like Tumblr and Flickr, Pia then put all her energy into studying photography at university in Dortmund which she then later attended. “I always say that’s when I started living and creating,” she adds.


Pia Henkel: No Running (Copyright © Pia Henkel, 2022)

Through the series, one thing Pia was focussed on emulating was the sensations and feelings she personally experiences when swimming. “Tranquillity and stillness are important factors, as I go swimming to be able to switch off and concentrate for a short moment only on the action,” she outlines. These feelings are palpable throughout the images, which are shown without a figure in sight, the pale blue bodies of water sit immobile, almost appearing like shimmering layers of thin glass. This is particularly incongruous in Pia’s shots of the water park, a site usually known for its hustle and bustle, and the splashing and screams of children. The deserted scene looks recently abandoned; it's strange, almost futuristic beauty takes centre stage instead.

Some, however, stand out for their architectural grandeur. With the pools all being built over various decades throughout the 20th Century, the series really feels like a sweeping survey of the transforming styles and designs of the 100 year period. The image that particularly stands out for its structural elements is one that also happens to be Pia’s favourite, that of the Stadtbad Mitte pool. Built in the late 1920s, the building, with its breathtaking, large square windows and simplistic monochrome tiled look has all the defining facets and refined charm of the Art Deco period. Some, with their concrete slab diving board show all the utilitarianism of brutalism, while another, with its busily patterned, tiled walls has all the garish splendour of the 70s.

Pia originally hoped for the series to be one that people could simply enjoy for the beautiful sceneries and the palpable sense of calm throughout. But recently, No Running has gained a new found relevance. With the current (and soon to be worsening) energy crisis, Pia explains that pools – like many other publicly run institutions – are at risk of not being able to open. And so, Pia concludes, “maybe my pictures predict the empty pool halls that are likely to become a reality in the near future?”

GalleryPia Henkel: No Running (Copyright © Pia Henkel, 2022)

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Pia Henkel: No Running (Copyright © Pia Henkel, 2022)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English Literature and History, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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