History of bathhouse culture explored and celebrated at London exhibition Soak, Steam, Dream
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History of bathhouse culture explored and celebrated at London exhibition Soak, Steam, Dream

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With the arrival of the private bathroom and a more clinical approach to sanitation and wellbeing, we have lost this leisurely sense of the bathhouse as a place not just for wellbeing and relaxation but also a place for social exchange and community life
– Exhibition curator Jane Withers

A new London exhibition is set to explore communal bathing culture through the work of contemporary architects and designers.

The immersive show – called Soak, Steam, Dream and organised as part of the 2016 London Design Festival – uses photography, film and archive objects to showcase international bathhouse projects by designers as varied as Peter Zumthor, Kengo Kuma and H3T architekti.

Each project has been chosen for its role in re-imagining the bathhouse as a social space in the 21st century, particularly in an era of water shortages. The aim is “to revalue and reconnect to water and use it more responsively and responsibly.”

The show will also compare today’s western spas, described by organisers as “invariably a place of privilege and luxury,” with the bathhouse, “which has more inclusive roots.” A particular focus will be placed on how the reduction of living spaces and changes in the built environment are shifting boundaries between public and private bathhouses.

Exhibition curator Jane Withers said: "There has been an extraordinarily rich architecture and culture associated with communal bathing since ancient times. With the arrival of the private bathroom and a more clinical approach to sanitation and wellbeing, we have lost this leisurely sense of the bathhouse as a place not just for wellbeing and relaxation but also a place for social exchange and community life.

“Gone too is the sensorial dimension of an architecture of stillness and reflection, designed to be seen floating, or through a veil of steam. Soak, Steam, Dream aims to reveal a new emerging bathing culture."

As implied by the exhibition’s title, it will be separated into three themes, as follows:

Soak will trace the tradition of bathing in hot springs from the Greek and Roman Baths to the Japanese onsen and European spa towns. Zumthor’s public baths for Vals and Kuma’s coastal Japanese zen onsen will be featured.

Steam will reveal a variety of different approaches to the sauna, including the Gothenburg Public Sauna by Raumlabor, made from recycled materials and conceived to revive its neighbourhood; Avanto Architects’ very public Löyly sauna for Helsinki; and the mobile ‘pop-up’ saunas by H3T, which have been suspended from bridges and placed in the middle of lakes.

Dream will reference bathing traditions from around the world, such as Sinan’s Ottoman hammams, and compare them with new trends in bathhouse architecture.

The exhibition has been designed by London studio Kellenberger-White, who have transformed the Zaha Hadid-designed Roca London Gallery into “an animistic bathing grotto” by drawing on natural and ad hoc materials such as clay, wood and charcoal.

Soak, Steam, Dream will be open from 16 September 2016 to 28 January 2017.

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A new London exhibition is set to explore communal bathing culture through the work of contemporary architects and designers.
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