Sauna culture is an essential part of Finnish culture and national identity. There are only 5.4 million Finns, but 3.3 million saunas. Public saunas used to be common in larger cities, but now that most new apartments have a sauna of their own, public saunas have decreased dramatically in number and there are only few remaining. As a sense of community is becoming a more and more important part of new urban culture, many new public saunas are being planned. With Löyly (meaning the steam that is emitted when you throw water on hot stones in a sauna) Helsinki will offer foreign visitors a public sauna experience all year round – a must when visiting Finland.
The project started with an initiative by the city of Helsinki. Hernesaari is a former industrial area on the Helsinki seashore that is being developed into a residential area. New uses are emerging for the area, while waiting for future changes to come. There is a cruise ship harbour in Hernesaari and the city wanted to activate the area with new functions and to serve visitors with new attractions. We launched the project in 2011, designing a temporary sauna village at the furthermost end of the peninsula. The concept did not prove financially viable, so the first client quit the project. We developed a floating sauna with the second client, but the concept proved impossible as the site faces the open sea and a floating structure was unable to withstand high waves and pressure from ice packs. The coastline will change with future development, but the city chose an area where the shoreline will remain as it is currently. We developed a new free-form concept with triangular faces. The client changed once again and when actor Jasper Pääkkönen and Member of Parliament Antero Vartia finally secured funding, the construction work could begin.
The site is unique. Being less than two kilometres away from the city centre, it is very central but at the same time the landscape is like in the outer archipelago. The plot is situated in a future coastal park that will be part of a broader “Helsinki park” connecting the capital city to the sea. The building was designed to be slim and elongated so as not to segment the narrow park strip. The volume is kept as low as possible so that it does not block views from the future residential blocks. Instead of building a conventional building, the sauna is developed as an easy-going, faceted construction that is more part of the park. When the wooden building turns grey, it will become more like a rock on the shoreline.The architectural idea is simple: there is a rectangular black box containing the warm spaces, which is covered with a free-form wooden „cloak“. The sculptural structure made of heat-treated pine has several functions beyond the merely decorative. It provides people with visual privacy. However, the lamellas do not limit the sea view from inside it, instead they function like Venetian blinds and blocking views in from the outside. There are sheltered outdoor spaces between the warm mass and cloak, where one can cool down in between sauna bathing. The cloak forms private terraces between its slopes that serve as a place to sit. The structure protects the building from the harsh coastal climate. It shades the interior spaces with big glass surfaces and helps to reduce the use of energy to cool the building. Moreover, the stepped cloak forms stairs to climb on to the roof and look-out terraces on top of the building. The construction forms a big outdoor auditorium for the future marine sports centre’s activities on the sea. There are around 4000 planks that were precisely cut to individual forms by a computer-controlled machine. The big wooden terrace is partly over the sea and you can hear the sound of the waves under your feet.
The building consists of two parts: public saunas and a restaurant. The saunas and public spaces open up to the sea, with interesting views towards the city centre and even towards the open sea. The atmosphere is calm and the spaces are dimly lit. Different areas are conceived as spaces within a space. Interesting views open up between closed spaces as you move from one area to the next. You enter into the restaurant, which is a light and open space. From there, a dimly lit sauna path leads to the bathing area. Shoes are left in a wardrobe before you go to a reception desk where you get a locker key and a towel. Dressing rooms and showers are separate for men and women. A leather curtain covering the door indicates entry into the unisex area, at which point visitors need to wear a bathing suit. Traditionally men and women bath separately and naked. We wanted to develop sauna culture so that there would be a possibility to bath together with your friends, regardless of gender. This also makes the sauna experience available for foreign visitors who might not be used to bathing naked.
The interior architecture of the restaurant and the sauna lounge was designed by Joanna Laajisto Creative Studio. The objective of the design was to create an atmospheric restaurant that compliments the strong architecture of the building. The approach could be called soft minimalism. The challenge was to create private seating areas in the large hall-like space with two walls of windows. People often feel most comfortable sitting with their backs against the wall. The solution was to build a raised platform for the bar area, which divides the space into two different areas. A wooden half wall anchors the long custom-designed sofas, which have a great view of the sea.
The main materials used in the interiors are black concrete, light Scandinavian birch wood, blackened steel and wool. All the materials are durable and long lasting. The wood used is pressed, glued and slightly heat-treated birch, a new sustainable Finnish innovation made of leftover materials from the plywood industry that is normally burned to produce energy. This is how waste is turned into a beautiful recycled material. Its manufacturing process produces a beautiful and cool light colour tone and strong durability.
In addition to the long sofas, Laajisto´s firm has used the glued laminated birch on walls, table tops, the long bar and even in the unisex toilet sink. The upholstered chairs, which add softness to the space, are by the Italian manufacturer Torre. All the fabrics are soft natural wool by Kvadrat. The bar stools are by Gubi and the wooden chairs in the sauna lounge are by the Finnish Nikari.
The String lights designed by Micheal Anastassiades for Floss create a subtle rhythm to the space, without obstructing the views of the Baltic Sea.
There are three different saunas that are all heated with wood: a continuously heated sauna, a once heated sauna (that is heated in the morning before the sauna is open and stays warm all evening) and a traditional smoke sauna – a true rarity in an urban sauna. This is how you can experience allkinds of Finnish Löyly during a single visit. Between the saunas there is spa area with a cold water basin and a fireplace room to relax in, between or after sauna bathing. You can swim in the sea and in the winter there is an “avanto”, the hole in the ice for winter swimming – a popular hobby in Finland and our office name as well.
The building is heated with district heating and electricity is produced with water and wind power. The building is the first FSC-certified building in Finland and the second in Scandinavia. The Forest Stewardship Council’s certificate proves that the wood comes from responsibly managed forests. The restaurant serves organic food and sustainably caught fish.