Löyly sauna in Helsinki by Avanto Architects

published in sb 6/2016

Rough exterior, warm interior

Finland has 5.4 million inhabitants but 3.3 million saunas. After a period when private saunas became very popular and public saunas decreased dramatically in number, the latter are now regaining popularity as they are playing an important part in new urban culture. Avanto Architects have designed a new free-form sauna building with triangular faces. Löyly (Finnish translation for the steam produced when water is poured onto hot stones in a sauna) in Helsinki offers its visitors a public sauna experience all year round.

This new attraction at the cruise ship harbour is located in Hernesaari, a former industrial area on the Helsinki seashore that the city of Helsinki is developing into a residential area. The site is unique. Being less than two kilometres away from the city centre, it is very central although the landscape resembles that of the outer archipelago. The plot is situated in a future coastal park that will be part of a broader “Helsinki park” connecting the capital city to the sea.

The building was designed to be slim and elongated so as not to bisect the narrow strip of parkland. The volume has been kept as low as possible so that it does not block views from the future residential blocks. Instead of designing a conventional building, the sauna has been developed into a faceted construction that is more part of the park than a conventional building. When the wooden building turns grey, it will become more like a rock on the shoreline.

Form follows various functions

The architectural idea is simple: the rectangular black box containing the warm spaces is covered with a free-form wooden “cloak”. Instead of being mere decoration, the sculptural structure made of heat-treated pine has several functions. It provides people with visual privacy. The wooden strips, however, do not limit the view of the sea view from within, but function like venetian blinds in blocking views from outside. There are sheltered outside spaces between the warm mass and cloak where users can cool down between sauna sessions. The cloak forms intimate terraces between its slopes that serve as a place to sit. The structure protects the building from the harsh coastal climate. It shades the interior spaces with big glass surfaces and helps to reduce the input of energy to cool the building.

The stepped cloak forms stairs providing access to the roof and viewing terraces on top of the building. The construction forms a big outdoor auditorium for the future marine sports centre’s activities on the sea. About 4,000 planks were precisely cut to individual shapes by a computer-controlled machine. The big wooden terrace is partly over the sea and users can hear the sound of the waves under their feet.

Ingeniously conceived room design

The building consists of both the public saunas and a restaurant. The saunas and public spaces open up to the sea, with interesting views of the city centre and even of the open sea. The atmosphere is calm and the spaces dimly lit. Different areas are conceived as spaces within a space. Interesting views open up between closed spaces, as users move from one area to the next. The restaurant is a light and open space. From there a dimly lit sauna path leads to the bathing area. Users leave their shoes in a wardrobe before proceeding to a reception desk to obtain a locker key and a towel. Changing rooms and showers are separate for men and women. A leather curtain covering the door indicates entry into the unisex area, at which point visitors need to wear a bathing suit. Traditionally men and women bathe separately and naked. The team of Avanto Architects, however, wanted to develop sauna culture. In Löyly it is possible to bathe together with friends without gender separation. This makes the sauna experience also available to foreign visitors who might not be used to bathing naked.

Relaxation room with a fireplace, bathing in the sea

The three different saunas are all heated with wood: a continuously heated sauna, a once heated sauna (that is heated in the morning before the sauna is open and stays warm all evening) and a traditional smoke sauna – a true rarity in an urban sauna. This is how you can experience all kinds of Finnish Löyly during a single visit. The spa area next to the saunas with its cold water basin and a fireplace room is ideal for relaxing between or after sauna sessions. Users can swim in the sea. In winter there is an “avanto” – the hole in the ice for winter swimming. This popular hobby in Finland inspired the name chosen for Löyly’s architectural team.

Comprehensive sustainability strategy 

The building is heated with district heating and electricity is produced with water and wind power. The building is the first FSC-certified building in Finland and the second in Scandinavia. The Forest Stewardship Council certificate verifies that the wood material comes from responsibly managed forests.