COMMUNAL URBAN CULTURE
COMMUNAL URBAN CULTURE
On Sauna Day, Helsinki’s homes, hotels and associations invite the public into their saunas. Sweating together helps deepen the relationship between Helsinki dwellers and their home town, while also bringing people together.
The temperature at the beach in eastern Helsinki is only a few degrees above zero. A fire is crackling in the freezing wind, and on the bridge close by, a Metro train whizzes past across the ice-cold sea. Despite the cold, some people are sitting outside with only swimsuits on. They are cooling off and having a snack between sessions in the hot steam of the tepee sauna.
Helsinki Sauna Day was organised for the second time at the end of October 2016, the third Sauna Day is planned for 11 March 2017. During the day, private individuals, associations and businesses offer their saunas for the use of the public, free of charge. During the day, more than 50 saunas are open in different parts of the city, and you can choose one that interests you by going to the event’s website.
The people sitting around the fire cooling off say they chose the tepee sauna because it sounded interesting. And the sauna tepee ordered by the Stoa Cultural Centre is indeed a special sight on the Puotila beach, which at this time of year is usually deserted. Don McCracken, who built the sauna, says that the site is perfect for it as it reflects the essence of Helsinki: ”the sea, the forest and the Metro. That’s Finland in 2016.”
NEW VIEWS OF THE CITY
Various community events seem to play an ever-increasing role in Helsinki life in the 2000s. On Restaurant Day anyone can open a pop-up restaurant in their own home or on the street corner; on Cleaning Day, Helsinki becomes a huge flea market and marketplace.
Helsinki Sauna Day, to be held twice a year, is produced by Yhteismaa, an association whose aim is to develop a more communal, liberal, enjoyable and responsible urban culture. The event’s producer, Jaakko Blomberg, believes that meeting places like the Sauna Day events are important, because Finland became urbanised later than many other countries: ”We do not, for instance, have a thousand-year Carnival tradition. Now we want to create some traditions of our own.”
Sauna Day is very well suited for promoting communality, since in Finland the sauna has traditionally been the place where you could get to know people you might be meeting for the first time. Blomberg points out that, while the nakedness associated with the sauna might be thought to be too intimate, on the other hand it helps people to discuss things more freely: ”Equality prevails in the sauna where everyone takes off their clothes.”
Helsinki Sauna Day also makes people more equal, as it opens doors. ”In Finland there are more than three million saunas, but there are many people who don’t have access to a sauna”, Blomberg continues. This event means that anyone who wants can have a sauna. Blomberg also considers it positive that many commercial operators such as hotels are involved, as this opens up new perspectives on Helsinki. Usually local people never stay in hotels in their own town.
Aino Toiviainen-Koskinen, who works for the youth organisation Oranssi, likes the idea that on Sauna Day you can get to know places that are never usually open to the public. She works as a volunteer on Sauna Day heating the gas-fired sauna in the former industrial area of Suvilahti. ”People are queueing up at the door even before we open”, she tells us.
According to Aino Toiviainen-Koskinen, the Helsinki Sauna Day brings together people from different backgrounds and of different ages, who would probably not meet otherwise: the oldest bathers in the gas-fired sauna are pensioners, while the youngest has been an eight-month-old baby. Some of the bathers are from the nearby Kalasatama housing area, and some have come from farther away.
In the Malta building in Jätkäsaari, the saunas are located on the tenth floor, with magnificent views over the town. In the lounge for relaxing after the sauna, happy, red-cheeked bathers are sitting talking and nibbling at snacks they have brought with them. For them, the best thing about the Sauna Day event is enjoying the company of others and getting to know new people.
Helsinki Sauna Day is organised in cooperation with the Visit Helsinki website for tourists, and thanks to this, there are some visitors from other countries. This year people came to the city’s saunas from places as far afield as Argentina, Poland and Russia. The Malta building has also had visitors to the sauna from France and Japan. The international flavour is part of the event’s attraction.
The saunas in the Malta building have been opened for the second time by Mervi Mäkelä, one of the residents. It is one of the few community houses in Finland, where the residents eat together and have saunas together at other times too. Taking part in the Helsinki Sauna Day fits in well with the communal ideal behind the building.
Many of those participating in the Sauna Day say they also go regularly to the public saunas in Helsinki. According to Mäkelä, Sauna Day gets people talking and getting to know one another more than usual. Some come to the sauna to relax, but for others the event is a kind of festival. For example, Teemu Suhonen, who arrived in his bathrobe, intends to visit as many as six different saunas.
Helsinki Sauna Day brings warmth and light to the grey autumn city. The idea was in fact to hold the event at this time of year, when, compared to summer, there are fewer activities going on. Paula Kallioniemi, who is cooling off after bathing in the women’s sauna in the Malta building, thinks there could be more Sauna Days. But at any rate, this event has brought her new opportunities to enjoy the pleasures of the Finnish sauna and her fellow sauna bathers have invited her to join the Helsinki Sauna Society.