An awkward grey creature stands on the edge of Frihamnen harbour in Gothenburg. It looks like a homemade robot elephant, cobbled together from industrial remains strewn around the dock. Clad in rusty sheets of corrugated steel, its truncated body stands on gawky little legs, lurching this way and that with cartoonish wonkiness.
“We wanted people to be curious about what this thing could be,” says Francesco Apuzzo of Raumlabor, the Berlin-based architectural collective behind this mysterious structure. It could be the chubby cousin of one of the laser-wielding AT-AT killing machines from Star Wars, but it has a more benign purpose. “People have to climb up the steps and only then do they discover the soft wooden interior of the sauna within.”
Once inside, bathers are enveloped by walls of warm wooden shingles, giving the feeling of being swallowed into the belly of the beast. Made of strips of veneer, like those used to cover furniture, the shingles warp and wrinkle with the humidity as you steam, giving the impression you’re inside a living, breathing thing. With its DIY aesthetic and earthiness, it is a far cry from the stark clinical quality or slick luxury of most contemporary spas.
The project is one of the experimental enclosures on show in Soak, Steam, Dream, an exhibition of bathing culture at Roca London Gallery, designed by Kellenberger-White for the London design festival. Curator Jane Withers is a self-confessed “ofuro-holic” (the Japanese term for someone addicted to hot water) and her selection ranges from a sauna-studded walkway that zig-zags through a remote mountain ravine in Chile, to pop-up sweatboxes driven around on the back of a bike in the Czech Republic.
Withers summons the wisdom of the Swiss architectural historian Sigfried Giedion, who saw society’s attitude to bathing as a litmus test of its attitude to human relaxation. “It is a measure of how far individual wellbeing is regarded as an indispensable part of community life,” Giedion wrote in 1948, identifying two modes of bathing: individual ablutions, conducted in private, and the more collective social activity. For the former, cleansing is the only goal; for the latter, says Withers, washing is a preliminary ritual in a watery odyssey.
It is this odyssey she hopes to take visitors on, having spent years “bathing in the shadows of the great water cultures”, from a Roman bath off-grid in rural Tunisia and a Japanese onsen where sulphurous hot springs bubble into the cold river water to Moscow’s great Sandunovský baths, “where the banya stove bellows flames like a dragon”.
Some of the most curious structures in the show come from Czech group H3T, whose love of steaming goes back to their earliest projects together as students. One of their first structures was a floating sauna on a pond near the spa town of Poděbrady, built in 2009 from odds and ends, including a cast-iron stove found at a dump. A small box clad with polycarbonate panels, it glowed on the lake by night like a floating lantern, illuminating the movement of misty bodies within.
They designed a similar structure a year later, this time suspended from a disused bridge over the River Odra, which was only accessible by boat, hung from the rickety crossing before the authorities caught wind of it. With a policy of “bring your own firewood”, it was a guerrilla sweatbox, unmanned like a floating bothy, available to anyone brave enough to reach it. It lasted a few weeks before planners demanded its removal. H3T went on to develop a series of mobile saunas, beginning with the Cyclosauna, built on the back of a tandem. It looks like something dreamed up by Heath Robinson, with a concertina fabric pod from which a little chimney pokes up, and it could happily seat up to six people inside its translucent cocoon.
“We’re not sauna obsessives,” says H3T’s Darina Bartková, “but we do see them as the perfect vehicles to ask questions about public space and social gathering. The sauna is an ideal place to have a debate or discussion – with everyone stripped of their clothing, it is an ultimately democratic space.”
It is a belief shared by architect and sauna enthusiast Tuomas Toivonen, who together with Nene Tsuboi built the Kulttuurisauna on the waterfront in Helsinki, a place for bathing and discussion, designed with the simple, raw quality of a rustic Japanese temple. “More than creating a space for physical bathing,” he writes in The Ten Commandments of the Public Bath, “the architecture of the bath requires – and creates – a space of anti-conflict, anti-competition and anti-hierarchy.”
There’s a common belief that bathing creates a sense of community, an affiliation the Japanese call “brothers in the skin”. It was the aim of Raumlabor’s project in Gothenburg, as the first intervention in an area slated for a swath of mixed-use development. Like London’s King’s Cross Pond Club, a rustic lagoon (intended to be temporary and currently slated for closure, against local outcry) in Argent’s grand regeneration project, it provided a space free from consumption, where you could soak among the cranes.
“Public baths were once an intense place for social gatherings in our cities,” Raumlabor writes. “They were places not only for relaxation and sport, but also for politics, discussion, business deals, eroticism, hedonism and crime … a place where there is no competition, consumption or spectacle, but where the focus is purely on sharing spaces and thoughts, and enjoying and benefiting from the water.”
At the height of the Victorian bathing boom – a culture lovingly documented in the recent encyclopedic book Victorian Turkish Baths – there were more than 600 Turkish baths across the UK, a number that has dwindled to 14. With our shrinking living space prompting us to rethink the boundaries between public and private, and the appetite for public bathing only increasing, this exhibition gets up a real head of steam.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010