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Punctum’s 'Public Cooling House' offers a beautiful, strange and literally cool ritual

★★★★★

In an age where water scarcity affects 700 million people across the planet, and climate change is preoccupying everyone from politicians through to switched-on kids, Punctum’s Public Cooling House is a timely experience. In addition, December is starting out as a scorcher – bright blue skies with nary a cloud in sight.

Happily, the Public Cooling House is situated in the heart of the Royal Botanic Gardens – a choice spot for sitting out a swelter at the best of times. Punctum, the Castlemaine-based outfit behind the project, have installed the Public Cooling House to further chill patrons out using only traditional techniques like evaporative cooling. Described as “part art house, part bathhouse”, the building is a specially designed flat-pack structure, resembling a blond wood yurt with holes in its side, draped with damp hessian sheets which draw through a cool breeze. 

We’re asked to take off our shoes outside and are quietly led into the house by one of four attendants. The attendants are dressed in all-white with aprons and caps, resembling luxury day-spa professionals. While we sit around the edge of the house, facing inwards in a circle, we’re encouraged to remove jewellery, which we store in individual linen bags under our seats. 

One by one, the quiet, soothing attendants work their way around the circle, while cellist Nikki Edgar plays a hypnotic, ambient hum, mimicking the cicada drone outside. First, we’re asked to stretch a fluffy, white-cotton towel over a terracotta dish as cold water is poured over the top. The attendants proceed to slowly and methodically wash our hands and feet. It’s a bit like an acupressure massage with a cool washcloth. Remarkably relaxing and refreshing, it comes as a surprise that wrists held so much heat.

The act of having your feet bathed by a stranger is also humbling. Who are these anonymous folk willing to be of service to the hot and bothered? 

Finally, we’re led to the gigantic terracotta pots filled with cold water in the middle of the house. The attendants hold our hands as we clamber in, then slide a curved wooden slat under our butts so we can dangle our legs and feet in the water. Using ancient evaporative cooling techniques, the water is initially bloody cold, but also a delight. Shortly, I’m wishing that everyone would just leave so that I could immerse myself in the pot like an overgrown gum-nut baby.

Highlight: The terracotta pots. Everyone needs one for summer.

Lowlight: It would have been nice for the door to have a screen so people outside couldn’t peep in, because it felt like a very private affair, but maybe that would disrupt the airflow. Also, my toes. 

Crowd favourite: This was a gentle experience to be enjoyed silently, so it’s hard to know. One patron reported back afterwards that not only did she love the ritual, she walked away with a host of ideas about how to beat the heat in a house without aircon. 

The Public Cooling House ran as part of the Mere Mortals exhibition series.