A state of water engineered through extreme heat, steam has its own physical, immaterial and sensorial qualities that envelope the bather in warmth and muffle our visual, aural and tactile perceptions of the world. Although different bathing traditions use steam (for example the hamam and the sweat lodge), the contemporary iterations of the public sauna focus on its use as a social tool.

1. Löyly, Helsinki’s new public sauna, takes its name from the Finnish word both for the steam radiating from sauna rocks when you sprinkle water over them, and also for the mystic spiritual dimensions of sauna. Designed to merge into the rocky waterfront, the sculptural asymmetric slatted wooden canopy shelters the sauna building, creating a series of terraces over and around it, and a vantage point with long views out to sea. The cave-like interior houses a traditional smoke sauna and a wood-burning sauna both bordering the Baltic where bathers can cool off all year round. Although the sauna tradition thrives in Finland and the country is purported to have over 3.3 million saunas – roughly one per household – in the last half century the private sauna has eclipsed public facilities. But recently there is evidence this is changing as public saunas recapture the imagination of younger generations.

2. Situated among the containers and cranes of Frihamnen, Gothenburg’s former industrial port, Gothenburg Sauna is raised above the water on concrete piles. Striking a gawky profile in the harbour, the building functions as a social tool and a catalyst for regeneration. The sauna is built largely from reclaimed materials and clad in weathered corrugated steel. Its interior is lined with larch shingles, creating undulating textured walls and the shower-room wall is made up of 1200 recycled glass bottles.
The ad hoc industrial aesthetic both camouflages the sauna and forges a connection to the past as the area transitions from shipyard to new public park ahead of the city’s 400th anniversary in 2021. Berlin-based Raumlabor worked with a team of local residents, turning the construction into a community project in keeping with the ancient concept of the bath as a public forum: ‘Public baths were once an intense place for social gatherings in our cities’, say the architects, ‘The sensorial qualities of the baths provide us with 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.’

3. The series of temporary, utilitarian saunas by Czech practice H3T are designed with free-thinking dexterity and minimal means and often inserted in unexpected places in the city or landscape as guerilla gestures. Accessible to anyone who can supply their own firewood to heat the sauna, they serve as an unconventional social tool, raising questions about the nature of human interaction. The series includes: Floating Sauna (2009), located on the pond in Poděbrad; Flying Sauna (2010), suspended from a bridge so that it hangs above the River Elbe and can only be reached by boat; Bicycle Sauna (2011), a mobile sweat lodge which is pulled around by tandem bicycle; and the city river sauna Lazne na Lodi (2012–2014).