The circle-shaped Steam of Life Pavilion, co-designed by Helsinki-based JKMM architects and Sauna on Fire collective, was built at the Burning Man festival to offer a sequenced sauna experience as a deconstructed art installation.
“Sauna” is the only Finnish word used in the English language and it is probably one of the most common comparisons used in Finland to describe desert hot conditions. In a land of 5,5 million inhabitants and over 3,2 million saunas, the Finns’ approach to the sauna is profoundly philosophical and strangely straightforward and day-to-day. Deeply rooted in Finnish society, the tradition of sauna stems from Finnish people’s closeness to nature and the country’s forests and lakes and has remained unchanged throughout the centuries. Even today, the sauna is at centre stage of all important events in life. It symbolises camaraderie, solidarity and the collective social domain. In addition to these social aspects, saunas are places for bathing and detoxing as well as private spiritual purging and peaceful meditation. They are places for both physical and spiritual metamorphosis.
Marcus Kujala, Hannu Rytky, Päivi Aaltio and Samppa Lappalainen, three architects and the CEO of JKMM Architects contributed to the unique participatory culture of Burning Man by joining the Sauna on Fire -collective, an interdisciplinary group of artists, thinkers, scholars and Burners. Their “Steam of Life” co-created timber pavilion, embodies the typical physical elements of a Finnish sauna. It is a human scale wooden building, minimalistic in its aesthetic and focused on embracing ambient natural light and shade; and in response to what will be a major gathering within a hot desert environment.
At Burning Man, a passageway guided visitors to circulate through the round shaped sauna pavilion. Stepping in from the harsh desert light, visitors entered a low-lit passage that leads to the steam room, the heart of a Finnish Sauna, with wooden benches and the “kiuas” stove. After enjoying a sauna, visitors entered a softly-lit space opening onto the atrium yard in the middle of the pavilion. In the absence of a lake, sea or a pile of snow to dip into, the atrium yard offered a shaded oasis for cooling down and meditative relaxing. Just like saunas in Finland, the Steam of Life -pavilion is about capturing the same ideal of a shared sense of humanity in a memorable and timeless way.
JKMM’s Samppa Lappalainen describes the process, “A great deal of effort has gone into making the sauna pavilion practical to pack, transport and finally build on site. This is why we have sought to minimise the number of building components. There are basically two sizes of plywood panels in use and three lengths of timber slats. The entire pavilion will fit into what is essentially half a shipping container.”