For whom does that bell toll? It is for everyone in Aarhus, and for all of us in our house.
From fire-ravaged Australia to tiny Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean – home to the last time zone on earth – citizens across the globe are “ringing in the New Year” and, by longstanding tradition, celebrating the first babies born in their communities. As this year begins and along with it a new decade, it’s worth thinking about a library in Denmark where a bell calls us to contemplate our climate future.
Yes, a library. It’s in Aarhus, a city of about 320,000 on the country’s northeast coast, and it opened in June 2015 to rave reviews because it’s chock-full of sustainability features. It has more than 2,400 square meters of solar panels on the roof. It has seawater cooling systems to reduce associated energy costs. The architects at Schmidt Hammer Lassen built the Dokk1 in harmony with the sun so that as our planet makes its annual journey, marked again by our celebrations, the angles and features of the library make the most of winter warmth yet shield it from the harsh, hot rays in the summer months.
The building offers 360-degree views of a revitalized waterfront, the surrounding forests, the vibrant and busy city and its citizens. In many ways, though, the single most climate-friendly feature of the Aarhus library is a bell that calls those citizens to a shared sense of community.
Designed by Danish artist Kirstine Roepstorff and called “The Gong,” the tubular bronze bell is 7.5 meters long and weighs about three tons. It is suspended in the center of the Aarhus library where it is no ordinary objet to be admired and forgotten.
That’s because whenever a baby is born, the bell answers.
“When a child is born in Aarhus University Hospital at Skejby, the parents can press a button at the hospital, which sends a signal that releases the arm that rings The Gong at Dokk1,” the library explains. “The Gong is engraved with a sun motif and an infinity symbol illustrating new life.”
In other words, the bell heralds the arrival of a child born in Aarhus so that the entire community will know and welcome it. The idea was so well-received that a second project launched a few years ago in partnership with Swiss artist Andrés Bosshard extended the “Echoes of the Bell of Birth” onto city streets. That temporary installation equipped 45 city buses with bells activated by drivers who – in addition to their public transit role – shared the news of each baby in Aarhus with their passengers.
“It’s Danish mentality to celebrate each other that way,” said one woman when interviewed at the bus.
With that celebration, though, also comes a sense of responsibility to community and an awareness of our collective future. The LED lighting, the 450 parking spaces for bicycles, the intentionally designed maker spaces – and, of course, the books – aren’t the beating heart of what makes Aarhus, or any city, a sustainable home.
Rather, it is our understanding of shared experience and destiny that must drive us to act on climate change and create a world in which the New Year’s baby is welcomed as our own, and whose future is inextricably linked with the hopes and fears of an entire planet – every time the bell rings.
And for whom does that bell toll? It is for everyone in Aarhus, and for all of us in our house.