For Melbourne Design Week 2020, Sydney-based art and architecture collective Studio Rain created Atmosphere: A Revival, a sauna installation along the picturesque Yarra River meant to revive bathing culture.
Located at The Old Alphington Swimming Pool in Alphington, a Melbourne suburb, the sauna exhibit is a nod to the area’s past as an iconic swimming spot in the 1920s through ’60s.
Drawing inspiration from Scandinavian and Japanese bathing rituals, the off-grid sauna, which fits six people, is intended to promote well-being and connect city dwellers to one another and nature.
“As populations rise and public spaces continue to shrink, levels of anxiety and loneliness are increasing,” writes the firm. “The work aims to address these urban symptoms through engaging visitors in an intimate public ritual. Through a heightening of sensory awareness, visitors are invited to explore deeper connections to self, to others, and to nature.”
The 62-square-foot sauna was constructed with a reclaimed cypress pine wood frame, western red cedar seating, and lightweight polycarbonate walls and roof that allow natural light to shine through.
“Traditional materials are combined with more experimental ones so as to play with levels of transparency and obscurity,” explains the firm. “Such materials allow the natural environment to have a presence in the space, whilst maintaining an intimate and sacred atmosphere.”
A traditional, wood-fire stove by Sauna & Steam Australia heats the space to 60 to 80 degrees Celsius (140 to 176 degrees Fahrenheit). Near the stove, walls are made of fiber cement for fire-proofing, and fiber cement flooring is found throughout as well. A low-swivel door was designed to prevent heat escape.
“Heat rises, so saunas typically loose a lot of heat with larger doors,” says Studio Rain cofounder Rachel Mackay. “We also like the element of play [the door] brought to the experience, like entering into a cubby house.”
For bathers who want to cool off, the sauna’s slanted roof allows rainwater runoff to be captured in a barrel that is then pumped to a bucket shower that is situated on a refurbished diving board on the riverbank.
Designed as a flat-pack system, the saunas can be easily disassembled, packed up, and transported from one location to the next.
“We initially planned for it to travel around Australia to different design weeks and ocean tide pools during winter, but due to the recent pandemic, a public sauna is not on the cards,” says Mackay, “which is why we have changed our strategy to instead focus on people who are looking for private, stand-alone saunas for their gardens or on properties attached to cabins.”
After creating the sauna prototype, the firm had such a positive response that they have now designed a limited edition of made-to-order saunas in collaboration with design-build firm Fresh Prince. These include the six-person model as well as smaller, two- to four-person saunas. For those who want something special, Studio Rain is designing one-of-a-kind saunas as well.
“Once the current crisis is over, we will look back into the idea of it doing different residencies to activate different swimming areas,” Mackay adds. “We would also love to talk to local councils about designing permanent public saunas in affiliation with existing swimming facilities. Apart from Bondi Icebergs here in Sydney, outdoor public saunas in beautiful scenic landscapes do not exist in Australia like they do in Scandinavian countries.”