Löyly is a sauna with a mission far beyond raising a sweat. It’s to spearhead the regeneration of a bleak part of the Finnish capital
Well that was unexpected. I know I’m going to a sauna, I know where it is in Helsinki and roughly what it will look like, but I hadn’t thought exactly how Löyly might be used. As I walk from the city centre along the new and empty narrow coastal park through the foggy rain, in the distance I can make out groups of people wandering to and fro between the building and sea under the grey sky. It’s June, not properly cold but not warm, and these people are wearing bikinis and swimming trunks.
Around me are the beginnings of Helsinki’s industrial zone: the sea on one side, the port entrance in front, distribution warehouses and grey-clad prefab offices lining the road on the other. It’s pretty bleak; a place not accommodating to pedestrians at the best of times, let alone ones with few clothes on.
The area is called Hernesaari, and in the middle of its coastline Löyly, one of a growing breed of public saunas, has landed. Abutting the water’s edge of Helsinki Park, Löyly anticipates a different future. For now it looks out of place, but it is designed to tempt people to explore the area as the City of Helsinki transforms it over the coming decade into a purely residential quarter.
Its design – narrow and low – by small, young Finnish practice Avanto Architects, responds more to what’s coming than what is here now. Paths and people cross through, past and over the building intuitively, like those in the park. Views are preserved for future housing behind. The building comes more from the sea, a mass of driftwood cleverly sculpted on the shore.
Löyly, named after the humid heat and ‘spirit’ of the sauna, started in 2011 as a temporary sauna village further up the peninsula, designed by the same architect. After that it went through two changes of client before Jaspar Pääkkönen, an actor, and the Finnish MP Antero Vartia could make the programme and finance work.
Today Löyly is less than 2km from the city centre and while there is a renaissance of public saunas in Finland, Anu Puustinen, co-founder of Avanto Architects, tells me running costs are so high that the only way this one could survive was through the addition of its restaurant and bar.
But no-one could have anticipated how popular the place would be. Two weeks after opening, in spite of the weather and empty sun terraces on top and in front, inside it is heaving. There are more than 400 bathers per day, and the restaurant has urgently had to employ more staff. The entrance is from the roadside, on the most vertical and ‘normal’ elevation. Glass doors open into the middle of the building on to a shallow ante space to shake dry one’s umbrella or brush off some salt from the sea. Ahead is the bar/restaurant and incredible views out to sea across the external terrace, to the left is the way to the sauna spa.
A humid atmosphere of buzz and cosiness hangs in the space.
Not discernible from the exterior, the basic premise of the building is wonderfully simple and effective: a rectangular almost fully glazed box enveloped by a timber cloak that rises in triangular planes of alternate steps and surfaces, creating terraces and seating in the folds and pockets of space. From afar the cloak appears tight fastened, and one cannot help feeling the overall shape is a bit bulky and wilful in the landscape, but on closer inspection the envelope reveals itself as a kind of faceted venetian blind of 4000 individually cut heat-treated pine planks stacked into a steel shelving structure. At once the perforated cloak protects the building from the harsh coastal climate, stops glare, allows privacy and becomes a playground and viewing platform, as well as creating outdoor semi-sheltered spaces to cool down in after a sauna. The rooftop provides a viewing platform and auditorium for future marine sports activities. The slightly undignified landing of the building, which is partly caused by regulations on stair rises in Finland, will fade as the timber greys over time to look like a huge rock in the sea wall. The whole thing is only made possible by CNC.
Within the box, the main spaces are separated by heavy black-pigmented cast and pre-cast concrete partitions that give weight and authority to the design. The restaurant sits towards the south corner with the best views, the interior designed by Joanna Laajisto Creative Studio with soft minimalist touches including dark walls, a raised timber bar, concrete floor, open blackened steel shelving and muted grey and pastel upholstery.
Along the rear of building is a kind of back corridor to the sauna; dark and narrow, lined with cupboards and giving access to a WC and storeroom. At the end is a bright tiny timber-walled L-shaped reception where visitors take off their shoes and pay the €19 entrance fee for two hours of bathing. From here visitors pass through black leather curtains into separate men’s and women’s changing rooms before regrouping inside the spa.
Inside the spa are two main spaces, one for showering, the other for lounging around the fire and ordering snacks from the restaurant. Here the black concrete walls are given a sheen for water resistance, and the spaces are dimly lit to encourage calm and disconnect from the outside world. Off these main spaces are three saunas. The scenery sauna and private sauna, which can be booked for parties, face the sea, with full-height picture windows to catch glimpses between the folds and blinds of the cloak. Both have the conventional light timber panelling. The scenery sauna has raised stepped seating and is heated by a huge furnace to about 100°C; the private sauna is a long booth heated by a domestic-looking stove. Both burn wood.
The smoke sauna, on the other hand, is like nothing I have seen before and is uniquely Finnish. To reach this it is necessary to go outside on to the deck and slither between the cloak and the box. Inside it is almost pitch black, completely cut off. This room embodies the history of the sauna. It is a replica of the old Finnish sauna, when for people hunting, sweating, scratching and living in forests, scrubbing yourself clean became an essential part of life. Having evolved from burrows in the ground covered with fir branches 4,000 years ago, with hot stones rolled in from a bonfire outside, the room is deliberately barn-like. The furnace is at the bottom and a crude blackened timber stair leads to a seating platform high above, evoking times when humans and livestock lived together, the animals below. The heat and smoke reaches deep into your lungs.
Before I know it I am invited to experience the sauna too – with Anu Puustinen and a group of her friends, here for the Finnish Association of Architects’ annual meeting. They swear allegiances in a ritual with what one imagines is a rather Masonic flavour, then discuss association business before changing into their bathing gear. Within hours of seeing those strange, distant people wandering around on the deck, I’m out there in a borrowed swimsuit in the rain, launching myself in and out of the icy waters. The whole place is exhilarating.
Architect Avanto Architects
Client Antero Vartia and Jasper Pääkkönen, Kidvekkeli
Project management Qtio
User/operator Royal Restaurants (Royal Ravintolat)
Structural engineering Ramboll Finland
Steel structural engineering SS-Teracon
HVAC engineering Optiplan
Electrical engineering Optiplan
Foundation engineering Ramboll
Interior design Joanna Laajisto
Creative Studio Foundation works Kanta Kaivu
Main contractor Rakennustoimisto Jussit
Electricity contractor Elektro Asennus
Steel structures VMT Steel
Timber suppliers Metsä Wood
Carpenter Puupalvelu Rajala
Glass structures Lasifakta
Graphic design Werklig