Soak, Steam, Dream


7 October 2016

“To bath is to fall into step with your biological rhythms: in and out breathing, the speed of blood coursing through your veins, the slowness of tiredness… The mechanical world of objective time – seconds, minutes, hours – is irrelevant here.”

So wrote Leonard Koren, the American artist and writer, in his 1996 book Undesigning the Bath. For Koren, who from 1976 to 1981 ran Wet: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, to bathe is not simply to cleanse. Nor is it about luxuriating amidst expensive fittings, cultivating a sense of financial weal via a spa treatment. A great bath, rather, is “a place that awakens me to my intrinsic earthly, sensual and paganly reverential nature.” Bathing is nothing less than a state of being.

Koren’s book was one of the starting points for Soak, Steam, Dream, an exhibition hosted at the Roca London Gallery. Curated by Jane Withers, the exhibition tracks a revival of communal bathing culture, from Chile to Japan via Gothenburg, the Czech Republic and Barking. “I’ve been interested in bathing cultures for years,” says Withers, “and I’ve looked at a lot of bathhouses. In the last few years we’ve begun to see enough to actually suggest that there might be a renewed interest.” Soak, Steam, Dream gathers images and objects related to this resurgence, as well as documentation of what came before.

The 20th century saw a precipitous international decline in the number of public baths across the world. By the end of the Victorian era, for instance, Britain boasted more than 600 Turkish baths, with 100 in London alone; only a dozen now survive. Often commissioned by worthy philanthropists with the intention of both literally and metaphorically cleansing society, they gradually became depicted as a sodden gateway into immorality: a characterisation not helped by a prudish society with an aversion to nudity. A century later, and fears around the HIV epidemic forced many bathhouses in Britain and America to close.

This is only one case, of course; in other countries things have transpired differently. “In some cultures like Japan,” explains Withers, “it’s never gone away. And in many places, such as Istanbul and Tunis, you’ll find functioning hamams, especially in areas were there aren’t good home facilities.” The association of private sanitary facilities with prosperity is slowing causing many hamams to close as they become associated with the poverty of the not-too-distant past.

In Europe, the traditional experience of spring bathing towns like Vichy, Marienbad and Wiesbaden has been supplanted by commercialised spa treatments, which prioritise pampering and a sense of exclusivity over the communal, and over the sort of bliss experienced by Koren. In Bath, one such spa leers over the original Roman thermae, as if offering a challenge to its millennia-old predecessor. The rise of profitable mass-bottled mineral water has hastened this process. “Spa, in Belgium,” recalls Withers, “is a really sad place. It’s basically a huge bottling plant. There’s seven or eight of the original, beautiful sources, but they’re dilapidated. The early bathing facilities are more or less deserted.”

For Withers, the loss of bathing culture entails not just the disappearance of a communal space – for socialising thought, discourse and eroticism – but also a denial of humanity’s ancient relationship with water. “Hot spring waters,” she says, “have their own properties, powers and mythologies. We just accept water as this clear colourless thing that comes out of a tap and we’re not thinking about its differences and characteristics.” On a chemical level, minerals such as iron and sulphur change the taste and texture of different natural waters; the district of Clerkenwell in London was once known for possessing around 100 wells, each of which had a different taste. In the wake of modern plumbing, water has lost its sensuousness.

The buildings featured in Soak, Steam, Dream each constitute a step in restoring this appreciation of water. In 1996, Koren began Undesigning the Bath by declaring that he could “only recall ever seeing two or three designer-created baths that were not oppressively sterile, boring, or mannerist caricatures of some historical model.” His challenge has been answered with aplomb. One project in particular stands as the vanguard: Peter Zumthor’s Therme Vals (1986-96) in Graubünden, Switzerland. Among the most heralded works of contemporary architecture, Zumthor’s use of local, natural materials helps turn his building into an extension of the rocks and hot spring below. Connected to a hotel, it was commissioned by the local commune to help revitalise the local economy.

Although Therme Vals represents a benchmark in the spa revival, it is far from the only template. Soak, Steam, Dream gives time to an extraordinary diverse array of projects. In Helsinki, capital of the country that originated the word "sauna", Avanto Architects has created the sea-lapping Löyly Design Sauna (2011-6), the first such public facility opened in the city for half a century. In Barking, Something & Son designed a temporary bathhouse (2012) on the site of a derelict pub, purposefully assembled from inexpensive, reusable material. Harking back to the mid-Victorian belief in the positive benefits of bathing, it aimed to become a new centre of community.

A particularly ingenious aspect of several of these projects is their location. The railway station in Onagawa on Japan’s Pacific coast was destroyed by the 2011 tsunami; when rebuilding it, the architect Shigeru Ban added a modern reimagining of the onsen on the top floor. In the Czech Republic, the architecture collective H3T has unveiled a series of guerilla sauna, including a cube hanging from a bridge (2010), accessible only by boat, and a mobile sauna attached to the back of a tandem bike (2011). Most beguiling of all post-Vals schemes is Germán de Sol’s Termas (2002-9) in the Villarrica National Park, Chile. A 450m walkway weaves its way around a volcanic spring and its waterwalls, allowing access to 17 tree-surrounded pools and grass-roofed shelters with open fires. Both as an experience of water in a natural state and as a work of human ingenuity, its staggering.

It is not easy to recapture the atmosphere of a spa or bathhouse in a gallery, especially not one as distinctly human-made as Zaha Hadid’s Roca London Gallery. But the exhibition design by Eva Kellenberger and Sebastian White of London-based graphic consultancy Kellenberger-White manages. The walls have been patterned with grid that resembles the white tiles of a bathhouse while being hand-drawn and imperfect. “We wanted,” says White, “to do something natural, and something touching the atmosphere of Leonard Koren’s images,” which often depict ad-hoc baths created by simply digging holes in the ground. The exhibits are displayed on similarly rough-hewn clay blocks, made from the same material as Roca’s bath furnishings. “It came in wet," says White, "and you could really smell the river, the fresh water.” Benches are slab-cut from the same Douglas-fir wood used in many Scandinavian saunas, while wall text is hand-written in charcoal, which is used in hot-rooms in Japanese onsen. “The process of the project,” says White,” was as important as the final approach. Each design element has its own material, and each has its own language.”

For an issue of the Harvard Design Review last year, the Finnish architect Tuomas Tuivonen wrote an essay entitled The Ten Commandments of the Public Bath. In it, he declared that “the architecture of the bath requires – and creates – a space of anti-conflict, anti-competition and anti-hierarchy." Shorn of our clothes and inhibitions, we are able to exist in a natural state of equality. By focusing on such public-spirited pleasures of the bathhouse, Soak, Steam, Dream makes a convincing argument for their revival.