Since time immemorial, and from continent to continent, saunas or bathhouses have played a community role, stripping their users of social distinctions and affording a rich seam for architects
Space dissolves in steam. Distances collapse, the borders of bodies are rubbed out, and disjecta membra loom through the fog. The history of the sauna or bathhouse is as obscure as its spatiality, its origin receding into the mists of time. Despite, or perhaps because of, the bathhouse’s prevalence – with vibrant traditions in Japan, Russia, Korea, Morocco, Finland, Turkey, Germany and Hungary – few regular, transcultural features can be delineated. Nevertheless, in the depths of all these bathhouse cultures there probably lies a sacred spring, which survives intact in the Native American sweat lodge, for instance, while leaving ritual traces in other traditions – arguably even the gay sauna. In essence, though, the bathhouse is now a demystified institution that nevertheless retains its community-forming function, something facilitated by the aforementioned ritual quality of the practices it codifies, and by the nudity of its users. This has a levelling effect: as the Russian saying goes, there are no epaulettes in the banya.
Architecturally speaking, the steam bath originates in very simple structures, such as the hide-covered twig-framed dome of the sweat lodge, or the rustic hut of the rural banya. And while grand and luxuriously decorated bathhouses continue to be constructed in the tradition of the Roman and Ottoman empires, which multiplied the cellular bath chamber in sequential series around large central spaces, the vernacular thrives more heartily. It seems there is an important element of atavism about the practice, of which architectural tradition is a vital component. The simple wooden interior of the sauna conjures an impression of life stripped down – like its users – to the bare necessities, which can of course be manipulated with great subtlety, as in Tuomas Toivonen’s octastyle Kulttuurisauna on Helsinki harbour. It is not quite a communion with nature, however, except for in the hot springs of the Japanese onsen or Icelandic geysers. Here architecture is minimal, if it encroaches on the experience at all.
Among the oldest of the ritual heat-baths were the temazcal of the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, domed stone structures guarded by the goddess Temzcalteci. These womb-like buildings were also used to heal the sick and especially for childbirth. Although numerous claims are still advanced for the health-giving properties of the sauna – most prominently the supposed stimulation effected by extremes of temperature – few today would give credence to the idea that daemonic forces lie behind these healing powers. And yet, while the medical benefits promised by sauna advocates are entirely spurious, the intoxicating quality of the experience is undeniable. And so the idea that the spirit world comes within touching distance through the steam rising from the heated rocks in the sweat lodge, for instance, or the pre-Christian tradition that a Bannik or bath spirit haunts the Slavic banya, may have some physiological basis.
While the bathhouse lacks the power to heal, it certainly had, in an unplumbed world, a public health function. The Roman baths, which were cheap enough for most to use, created a well-scrubbed empire, although one does wonder how safe the unchlorinated water would have been. This infrastructure was not seen again in Britain until Victorian diplomat David Urquhart re-imported the bath from the Ottomans, who had kept the Roman tradition alive, culminating in the works of Sinan, the greatest bath-builder of them all. Orientalising baths were built across Europe and North America in the 19th century. More salubrious versions, such as the famous Friedrichsbad in Baden, were the preserve of the upper classes, but in Germany and Britain they were more generally intended as a means of cleansing the poor – in the United States, this meant immigrants in particular.
At one point Britain had around 600 Turkish baths but, since the rise of private bathrooms, many have been closed or converted into fancy spas; in London, only Porchester Spa, opened in 1925 as the Paddington Central Baths (where my great-grandmother once controlled the hot water supply with a big brass key) survives intact. There one can still be schmeissed: a Yiddish term for a massage with a bunch of raffia, once a common practice in London’s poorer districts.
Tashkent national baths demolished
In post-revolutionary Russia the bathhouse’s role as cleanser of the masses was given a new inflection. While extant examples, such as the gorgeous Sanduny in Moscow, emphasised the sacramental quality of communal bathing, this was now incongruously married with a technocratic Futurism. The banya was reworked as a machine for the creation of Soviet Man, with the circularly planned buildings designed by Aleksandr Nikolsky representing, according to Tijana Vujosevic, a communist cosmos in which the body is processed according to Taylorist principles. In the circular domed pool of Nikolsky’s banya, the revolutionary subject experienced ‘proletarian mass-baptism under the mechanised heavens’ – or would have done had it ever been built. Vast baths were eventually constructed, however, across the USSR, including a monumental circular example with beautiful mosaics at Almaty, which was completed in 1982. ‘Ultimately,’ Vujosevic posits, ‘the [round] banya was the world: a world inhabited by the mechanised proletariat’.
Online for 1 year only pls russia sandunovskaya banya ru107729
As in all areas of life, the Abrahamic faiths had a sad effect on bathing culture. Mixed bathing was usual in Japanese onsen until the opening of the country to the West during the Meiji period (1868-1912). And in Mesoamerica, the reeking European invaders outlawed the ritual steam baths, which they found shocking due to the mixed nudity of the participants. This problem is dealt with by strict segregation in Islamic cultures, where the hamam is still employed for ritual cleansing, an association reinforced by the proximity of many such institutions to the mosques they serve. And while some cultures have a very matter-of-fact approach to mixed nudity, most only desegregated very recently, or veiled their modesty in ridiculous garments, as in Cruikshank’s engraving of a Roman bath at Somerset. It is worth noting that the Romans beat us to co-bathing in the second century, albeit in the face of official opprobrium.
Following Napoleon’s eastern campaigns, the gender-segregated Turkish bath became the source of much excited speculation among western Europeans. Travellers could take advantage of these in person; Flaubert, for instance, experimented with homosexuality in bathhouses in Cairo and Beirut, where he contracted syphilis from a 14-year-old boy, but the impenetrable women’s baths were the object of more widespread curiosity. These racialised fantasies are recorded in paintings by Ingres and Gérôme, in which oceans of flesh are exposed in stimulating proximity and pale Turkish skin is scrubbed by black servants. In fact, the hamam was a space where women could socialise unmolested, which partly explains the intensity of the male European desire to penetrate it (although intriguingly, Ingres’s The Turkish Bath was first owned by Ottoman diplomat Khalil Bey). This prying impulse survived in the paintings of Picasso and Le Corbusier.
While the eroticism in such paintings was imaginary, the bathhouse has always been ripe with sexual possibility. The Roman baths thronged with sex workers and people indulging in all possible configurations of intercourse, as depicted in mosaic form at the baths in Pompeii. More recently, the bathhouse has been a centre of gay life, offering a space where men could meet in conditions of relative safety. It was, as Aaron Betsky put it, a sort of queer city in miniature, with its corridors the streets, its cubicles, houses, and its darkrooms, squares. As well as functioning as a place to form friendships and sexual partnerships, the bathhouse was also an essential cultural hub: the famous Continental Baths in Manhattan, opened in the basement of The Ansonia Hotel in 1968, gave Bette Midler, Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan their first gigs. Dianne Chisholm reminds us that it was also a commercial enterprise, where sex was drawn into the capitalist phantasmagoria. Many of these establishments were shut down in response to the AIDS crisis, and those that survived have since been lost to rising rents and gentrification. The Romans would have pitied us – as the epitaph of one Tiberius Claudius Secundus read: ‘Baths, drink and sex corrupt our bodies, but baths, drink and sex make life worth living’.
Hollywood spa 9 77
Not all is lost. In response to recent closures, such as that of Chariots Spa in Shoreditch, London, a temporary sauna called ‘Soaking Levitts’ was organised by artist Henry Stringer in a south London warehouse last spring. And elsewhere, bathhouse culture thrives above board, for instance in South Korea, where the jjimjilbang is increasingly popular among people of all ages. These reasonably priced establishments provide a place to socialise, relax, and even to spend the night, since most are open around the clock and offer places to sleep – a facility frequently taken advantage of by those who have overindulged after work. The most striking architectural feature of the jjimjilbang is the presence of domed kiln saunas. These can be found even in gargantuan modern jjimjilbangs such as Spa Land Centum City, which is located in the world’s largest mall in Busan – spring water is pumped from 1,000 metres beneath. Among Spa Land’s 22 different themed baths, the atavistic beehive forms of the jjimjilbang recur, offering an intimate retreat from the consumerist maelstrom outside.
Horai Onsen, Kengo Kuma, Atami-shi, Japan, 2003
The Japanese onsen is an ancient import arriving, it is theorised, with Buddhism, for which it served as a ritual bath. In Japan, these foreign ideas fell on fertile, volcanic ground. The preponderance of natural hot springs created a nation of bath addicts, and the onsen continues to be enormously popular today. Many are attached to traditional ryokan or inns in rural areas, where the bath is usually an outdoor pool fed by a hot spring. Architecture is often absent from such sites, or kept to the rustic minimum – a couple of wonky posts holding up a simple wooden roof, perhaps. Any barrier between naked human skin and nature is to be avoided as much as possible; however, there are also municipal versions, and a few examples by established architects. Eccentric historian and architect Terunobu Fujimori constructed a bizarre, stripy onsen at Lamune, with trees planted in each of its several pinnacles. More conventional are Kengo Kuma’s onsen. His Ginzan Onsen at Fujiya is a large and luxurious ryokan, but here the pools are private and attached to individual rooms – a significant break from the communal bathing-in-nature tradition. Kuma’s Horai Onsen, on the other hand, is a very simple monopitch corrugated plastic canopy over a communal wooden pool. Here, the view over the ocean is the star.
Horai onsen by kengo kuma drawings
Löyly, Avanto Architects, Helsinki, Finland, 2016
Although Finns have a reputation for being sauna-mad, the Finnish public sauna is in decline, displaced by private domestic examples. In recent years, several attempts have been made to reverse this trend, among them Tuomas Toivonen and Nene Tsuboi’s subtly fascinating Kulttuurisauna on Helsinki’s harbour, with its columns and rooftop pyramid. Recently, this has been joined by a larger sauna in the dockland development area of Hernesaari, which is intended to help bring new life to the former industrial zone. The folded wooden envelope of the building, with its extensive decking – from which you can dive into icy seawater, should you wish – and traversable roof, provides a place for locals to meet, and thus creates a transitional social zone between the intimate spaces of the interior and the urban space of the waterfront. The name of the building, Löyly, comes from the old Finnish word for spirit or soul. In current usage it denotes the steam that rises from the hot rocks within saunas.
Löyly by avanto architects drawings
160531 loyly 114 web
160522 loyly 036 web
Mikve Rajel, Pascal Arquitectos, Mexico City, Mexico, 2011
The purifying ritual bath or mikveh is central to Jewish religious life, and there are numerous strict rules regarding the purity of the water, which should preferably be ‘living water’ from a spring or alternatively rain water, and the facility in which it is stored. Although there are notable ancient mikveh – among them a subterranean, sixth-century example beneath Syracuse – most modern mikveh are of little architectural merit. However, the influential orthodox Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson declared that new mikveh should be constructed in the most attractive way possible and, as a result, some more interesting examples have been built. One of these, built to serve Mexico City’s Jewish community, gives the ritual a setting not unlike a modern spa, with subdued lighting and expanses of wood and marble lining the communal areas. The idea is to encourage younger women to view the mikveh as a social experience – which, of course, it always was.
Mikve rajel by pascal arquitectos drawings
Crossing Parallel(s), Studio MRDO and Studio LaM, Korean Demilitarised Zone, Korea, unbuilt
Prodded by President Trump, the cold war between North and South Korea – which never formally declared a truce – threatens to return to boiling point, with potentially world-ending consequences. What solutions can architecture offer to the crisis? This is of course a ludicrous question; nevertheless, architectural research group Arch Out Loud recently held an open competition to design an underground bathhouse in the demilitarised zone, with the aim of emphasising the shared culture of the two Koreas, and the potential of the type as a place where people, stripped of their social signifiers, can mingle without fetters. In the winning entry, a double-helix ramp draws people from both sides of the 38th Parallel down into a vast subterranean void – shaped like the traditional kiln sauna of the Korean jjimjilbang – to be united at the bottom in a circular pool of hot water and brotherly love.
Crossing parallel(s) by studio mrdo and studio lam drawings
05 communal pool (liquefy emotions)
03 double helix ramp become closer
This piece is featured in the AR’s February 2018 issue on Korea – click here to purchase a copy