Sauna Architect Delivers Century-Old Sweaty Design Lesson in Hong Kong

 | Dec 25, 2017 | 10:00 AM EST
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Asia's real estate developers should learn from the example of a century of Finnish ingenuity and design in blending public and private space, according to the architect Ville Hara.

In building a temporary sauna on the Hong Kong waterfront, Hara has showcased the same brand of democratic design and construction that he deployed as the architect of the for-profit but very public Löyly sauna in Helsinki. Löyly, which is the word for the steam that comes off a hot sauna stone, has become an instant hit in the Finnish capital.

Adrian Cheng, the driving creative force behind the New World Development (NDVLY) property empire, orchestrated Hara's presence in Hong Kong as part of the Culture for Tomorrow initiative. This first iteration was dubbed "Hot Is Cool," with Hara's temporary sauna next to the iconic Star Ferry on the Kowloon waterfront part of a "dialogue" between Finland and Hong Kong.

Finland this year celebrates the 100th anniversary of its foundation. Having been part of both Sweden and Russia, the "Land of One Thousand Lakes" declared independence on December 6, 1917. More than a century under Russian governance ended as the Bolshevik revolution overthrew Tsarist rule.

Actually, there are officially 187,888 lakes in Finland's interior. There are also 3.3 million saunas to 5.4 million people -- at least one per household, an intrinsic part of the culture.

Hara designed the Löyly sauna with Avanto Architects partner Anu Puustinen, the word "avanto" meaning the hole cut in ice so sauna goers can dip into freezing water. Löyly was built in 2015 and 2016, and as soon as it opened was a surprise hit. The developers of Löyly took out a €6 million ($7 million) loan to build the public sauna, near the docking point for visiting cruise ships and freighters along the Baltic Sea.

Despite the place of the sauna at the center of the fabric of society in Finland, building a high-profile public version was an untested idea. The skeptical bank financiers set a 20-year tenor on the loan. The owners will have, based on current usage, paid it back within 3.5 years. 

The sauna also features a popular restaurant and bar, its sleek, rippling wooden lines a new symbol of Finnish form. Despite the initial doubts about the sauna's viability, Hara believes its success demonstrates that if you built it well, they will come.

"If you invest in good architecture, it pays back commercially," Hara says. "People are not stupid. You should not underestimate people."

The architect notes that almost every space in Hong Kong, Asia's capital of capitalism, is in private hands and used very much for profit, only a small amount of it government-owned. Little is given over for civic or public/private purposes.

He laments that the bulk of retail development has nothing distinctively Asian or even "real" about it. Real-estate landlords could, he feels, set themselves apart by instilling Asian values into the design of what are now bland shopping malls.

The greenscaping that goes on in Hong Kong's shopping centers is only for show. Knock on most finishings, and they're hollow. Even in the competitive shopping experience that Hong Kong becomes at Christmas time, store goers will notice the lack of authenticity around them.

"Touch the surfaces, and they're always plastic. It looks fancy but there's nothing inside," he says. "It creates a generic environment. You don't know if you are in New York or Tokyo or Hong Kong: nobody cares."

New World attempts to meld public and private in its new buildings, the first noticeable departure from Hong Kong's big-box format being the K11 shopping mall in Tsim Sha Tsui. Rather than building the mall out right to the edge of its footprint, the developer has allowed public space for seating, as well as buffer zones with other open space as well as cafes and restaurants before you get to the shops.

"It's giving back something to the city," Hara says. "I appreciate this kind of thinking because it's quite rare."

In investment terms, Finland inevitably equates with Nokia (NOK) . The mobile-phone maker has recast itself, getting over 90% of its revenues from selling telecommunications-network equipment. 

The company has also licensed its phone technology to handset makers that reduces the number of components, spares battery power and improves reception. It most recently struck a deal with the Chinese phone maker Huawei, meaning it now makes royalties from deals with all the world's major phone makers, including Apple (AAPL) , Samsung Electronics (SSNLF) , LG (LPL) and Xiaomi. 

But Finland has also exported quirky parts of its identity, including the Moomin cow/hippo hybrid cartoon trolls. The quirky creatures are now licensed through Moomin Characters by the likes of toy- and household-products maker Martinex and consumer-goods manufacturer Berner. Finland has also given the world the simple, but eternal styles of Marimekko (MKKOF) textile and home-furnishing design.

Hara designed the Löyly sauna along a disused part of the Helsinki waterfront. What was a dodgy neighborhood that had fallen into disuse has become a lively public space, particularly in the long summer days, when the park around it fills with activity and life. The sauna has sparked other commercial development, including apartments, nearby.

I was lucky enough to have the chance to visit Löyly this summer on a flying visit to Finland. The sauna has the traditional hot stones in a huge heated stove for the main sauna, as well as a darker, smaller "smoke sauna" in a room that has treated, aromatic wood.

The sauna represents the Finnish soul. It's a democratic experience, where everyone is undressed and equal, sweating alongside everyone else. Since Löyly is co-ed and in the city center, you wear swimwear, although the traditional Finnish experience is a lot less clothed!

The tactile experience of entering a sauna delivers the "real" architecture that people now seek, Hara feels. And it says something more about the Finnish spirit on this century anniversary.

"You leave all your clothes behind, it's very democratic," Hara says. "For us, sauna is a kind of sacred place."

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