A Super-Hot Finnish Sauna Tradition
A risk-taking team of architects shares a beloved Finnish pastime with the world.
When a famous Finnish actor teamed up with a budding politician to build a multi-million-dollar public sauna, everyone thought they were crazy, and rightfully so. To start, they wanted to build it along the Helsinki seashore in front of unattractive industrial buildings that don’t exactly welcome you to Finland’s capital, to say the least. Since the coastline was barren, with no forest nearby to provide an unlimited resource for logs to heat it, they’d have to purchase massive amounts of wood, transport it, then hire someone full-time to make sure the public sauna stayed comfortably (or uncomfortably) hot throughout the day.
“It was definitely a passion project because it sounded like an idiotic idea,” says Ville Hara, cofounder of Avanto Architects Ltd, the firm that built this structure of air known as Löyly. So the happy-go-lucky actor Jasper Pääkkönen and tightly-wound Antero Vartia, a politician, “were really worried in the beginning,” says Hara. “Antero said he couldn’t sleep at night because he wondered how he’s ever going to pay back the six million Euros he borrowed from the bank.”
But Finns love their saunas. In a country with only five and half million people, there are over three million saunas, more than one per household. Pääkkönen and Vartia weren’t about to give up on their dream to create the first truly public recreational sauna in their homeland, and believed — though it had never been done — that they could cover operational costs with a restaurant.
Reinventing a Finnish sauna ritual
The Finnish obsession with saunas couldn’t be illustrated more clearly than with the architecture firm’s branding of itself and this sauna. The word “avanto” in Avanto Architects Ltd. means the hole in the ice that you dip into after a sauna. “It’s a really powerful experience,” says co-owner Hara, clearly addicted to his daily ritual. “It wakes you up really, and you feel good afterwards even though it’s kind of a shock to your body.”
And the word “löyly” means the steam rising from the hot rocks inside a sauna, with the Old Finnish translating to “spirit” or “life” — a fitting term, given the culture’s love for the ritual. Although Avanto was clearly the prime choice to pioneer building a public sauna, the Finnish pastime itself presented some unique challenges.
In the 1950s, before people commonly had bathrooms at home, public saunas were used to wash and bathe. But as private bathrooms became more popular, the sauna’s significance has changed quite a bit — “it’s not about washing yourself, it’s a social thing where you meet with people and relax, and you hang out,” Hara explains.
As people migrated away from rural areas to cities and quickly urbanized the country in the ’60s and ’70s, sauna culture became even more significant and unique to Finland.
“We didn’t have urban culture like in Paris or in New York, so people mostly stayed at home in their apartment, inviting people to their place when they wanted to meet somebody instead of hanging out in cafes and restaurants and so on,” says Hara.
While the sauna experience was now urban and social, it was still private, and the thought of opening this intimate experience to strangers seemed odd. But for a traveller, to visit Finland without experiencing the quintessential Finnish ritual would seem an incomplete vacation.
This was another major selling point for Löyly — sharing Finnish culture with the world, though sauna purists couldn’t handle any needed changes in their customary ritual.
“It’s really a tradition, and people have very strong opinions about it, so every time you change something, you are criticized quite a lot,” says Hara. Specifically, making people wear bathing suits caused an uproar among the Finns used to bathing naked with their own gender, unless among family.
“It’s a little bit like opera,” Hara says. “It’s kind of a traditional thing that has been done for hundreds of years and it has always been the same, but we can still develop it further and investigate new ways to do this sauna ritual.”
Turns out, these dreamers weren’t madmen, but visionaries. “We opened Löyly at the beginning of the summer, and it has been a really huge success — it’s always filled with people,” says Hara. Royal Restaurants, which manages the restaurant along with many high-profile establishments in Helsinki, set its all-time selling record this summer at Löyly.
A natural solution
While designing a dream project can often be a nightmare, in the case of Löyly, there were some unlikely heroes at the core of it.
“They always say that the bureaucrats are not nice people, because when you have good ideas like a pop-up restaurant and creative urban pop-up culture, they prohibit them due to legislation and rules,” says Hara. “But in this case, actually, the whole idea came from Helsinki city.”
While Hara found this paradigm shift encouraging, it didn’t limit the hurdles Avanto would encounter once given the job. The city’s primary aim was to beautify an industrial, rundown port that was discouraging tourists from exiting their cruise ships to shop and explore Helsinki, losing the city substantial tax revenue.
The city’s long term solution is housing development, but since that will take 20 years, something more immediate was desired. So Avanto’s challenge was, in addition to considering what sauna looks like at the coast now, to design a sauna that would melt into the landscape 20 years down the road.
“The biggest concern was not to ruin this beautiful park that will be there in the future, and we also pushed the building as low as possible, so the buildings behind that are going to be constructed wouldn’t lose their expensive sea view,” says the architect. “Nature is so sparse in this area. Instead of a traditional building c a box-like building — Löyly is more like a landform or artificial topography. So it blends — it’s part of the coastal scenery.”
Like true visionaries, the creatives at Avanto solved these design problems, meanwhile tying the sauna — and consequently the visitors — back to nature, one of the traditional aspects of sauna culture.
But then the second investor couldn’t raise the funding, so the project stalled again.
That’s when the actor and staunch environmentalist Jasper Pääkkönen, as well as business partner and future Green Party Parliament member Antero Vartia, fell in love with the design resembling a “tunturi,” the Finnish word for a large hill that rests on flat terrain. In fact, the eccentric duo was so excited, they bought the project and tripled the budget.
Of course, the investors were adamant about using woods harvested sustainably and efficient heating methods to lower environmental impact — adding more difficulty to the project, but at the same time, more fulfillment and testimony of their love for nature.
The bank handed over its millions, and somehow, despite the stress and sleepless nights, Löyly has exceeded everyone’s expectations, including Hara’s.
“It’s really hard to say why we go to sauna, because it’s not such a rational thing to do.” He laughs again. If nothing else, the architect says, it’s time to unplug from the all-consuming digital world and a chance to connect directly with other people, face to face, or at least through the misty löyly.
“Maybe this sauna culture is so popular because it’s going back to the roots,” he says.