Conversation with Nene Tsuboi & Tuomas Toivonen (Kulttuurisauna)

Although the sauna holds a special place in the heart of Finland, it’s not so often these days that a new public sauna is built. They’ve fallen out of fashion with the rise of private saunas that are now built into most residences. As of 2010 there were 1.5 million saunas in flats alone here in Finland, which is approximately one sauna for every 3.5 people.


Tuomas Toivonen, an architect, and Nene Tsuboi, an artist, are a rare exception in that they’re building a new public sauna. The Kulttuurisauna, as they call it, will sit on the water’s edge in Helsinki’s upcoming Kallio neighborhood.

The site is that little rectangle of land on the lower right. View Larger Map

With the duo having recently broken ground on the building site, we sat down to learn from their experiences exploring the dark matter of Helsinki and the travails of NIMBYism.

How it started

“The possibility of building for yourself only happens when you understand how [the system] works,” Tuomas recounts. “When you build up enough courage to walk into [a city] office and say, this is going to sound crazy but…” Without enough knowledge and experience with the permitting and approvals process it’s hard to imaging having the confidence to tackle something as complex as a sauna-sized project. Tuomas has had the benefit of some seven years of operating his own practice for paying clients. That’s a good amount of time to build up enough confidence to walk into the city offices and venture an unusual idea.

So it’s easier to imagine architects, property developers, and other professionals who are familiar with the process being in a position to initiate these kinds of projects because they don’t have to pay themselves (not market rates, anyways) to wade through the muddy parts of the process.

By making decision making processes more transparent we can demystify the process, making it inviting for experts and enthusiastic amateurs alike.

Dark Matter


Source: Kulttuurisauna

Describing the process, Tuomas and Nene struggle to find peak moments of difficulty:

“there are not really specific bottlenecks, more like a general friction.”

As a self-initiated project that includes an architect as half of the core team, they were able to progress, if slowly, despite this ‘friction’ which would cost too much money and take too long for a paying client to maintain.

The effect of this friction is to weight the decision making process towards larger projects that are likely to have a significant income stream able to recoup the costs incurred. Simply put, bigger projects have a better chance of surviving the battle of attrition in the current decision-making structures.

The difficulties of sorting out dark matter become apparent in the dense details of the process. The waterfront site features a seawall which is maintained by the parks department, therefore raising a question about long term maintenance and making the parks department extra cautious with geotechnical concerns. Although it was not clear at the outset, in the end Tuomas and Nene were obligated to install pilings instead of a foundation.

The concerns were known to all parties, indeed an analysis that showed it was possible to build without pilings was a deciding factor for the economics of the project in early financial projections. But when it came time to build, different parts of the city had different opinions about what was required as a minimum standard.

dm squid

Coming late in the process, the requirement to install pilings forced them to make a decision: abandon years of effort or find a way to scrape together a significant amount of money to cover the costs of re-engineering the plans and the capital costs of the pilings themselves. Tuomas and Nene doubled down on their commitment to the Kulttuurisauna and now we have a very real visualization of the ‘cost’ of the darkness of dark matter. The city’s decision-making is as opaque as the pilings are deep.

When a proposal involves specific risks that have not been assessed before, extra time should be taken to make sure that balanced perspectives may be properly synthesized.



Tuomas proudly showing off the definitive stamped, signed, and approved YES to the Sauna.

Projects like Kulttuurisauna go through a period of “neighbor listening” where people who live near the proposed site are given the opportunity to make comments on the plans. It’s possible to do this oneself, but Tuomas and Nene opted to pay the city a standard fee of 180€ to have them handle the legwork of this listening period. In practice, this means that the approvals architect in the city planning office made a judgement about how wide the catchment for the project is and then sent invitations to comment to everyone in that area. They had 2 weeks to comment.

The results of this call go into a dossier and then a judgement is made. Kulttuurisauna was approved by the city architect at this stage and moved on to the next phase, a month-long option for complaints. A single complaint was lodged, it went to the permit council for consideration (taking another 8 weeks), and the complaint was eventually rejected by the city’s permit council. On the day of our conversation Tuomas and Nene had just received final, written confirmation from the court of Helsinki that the project had cleared all appeals. This piece of paper represents a resounding YES to Kulttuurisauna.

In parallel to this process, Tuomas and Nene were receiving direct and indirect encouragement from members of the direct community who enthusiastically supported the proposal but it’s important to note that the bureaucracy is better set up to accept complaints than it is compliments towards a proposal.

This experience begs the question, could there be a way to think about the right to appeal in the context of a parallel right to support, in effect limiting appeals that are not backed by a wider base of support or balancing appeals against support?

Now or forever


Source: Kulttuurisauna

Planning permissions are set up to OK an event or infinity, with nary an in-between. Semi-permanent constructions or meanwhile usage for a handful of years are therefore difficult in Helsinki. The Paviljonki may be one exception but it’s not clear how it happened (perhaps though WDC mandate?).

Short to medium term usage of spaces could provide positive room for experimentation with a lowered threshold for approvals, and a faster cycle of innovation, while maintaing stafety standards.

Rituals to match acts of consequence


Source: Kulttuurisauna

“You could say that the Civil servants have been really civil during the process.”

Tuomas and Nene noticed a positive inclination on behalf of many of the civil servants they interacted with during the project. In their estimation, a self-initiated effort that is clearly a project of passion lends a different tone to the conversations. They recalled with a bit of glee the excitement of the moment when they signed the land lease: “we expected a bureaucratic stamp but instead when we arrived they were asking ‘so you are the ones doing the sauna’ and very excited to see us.” These kinds of stories that are rich with detail and personal commitment make for cities that people love.

Bureaucrats are people too. Could rituals in the context of bureaucracy subtly create opportunities to encourage civic entrepreneurship? How might a coherent, articulate, and widely-accessible city strategy empower individual civil servants to calibrate their decisions in support of larger values?

The pointy tip


While developing the project from the very beginning, Nene and Tuomas were interested in a network of possibilities. For them the perfect project was not just a sauna or a special building, per se, but one that would combine those and more. They sought a project that folded architectural merit, public sauna, a waterfront site, and energy efficiency considerations into one effort. This particular mix, one imagines, is what happens when future owners dream up a project that they’re willing to tie themselves to for thirty years or more. It’s bound to be specific, even quirky, and it will succeed or suffer on its specific composition of these aspects.

Tuomas and Nene describe it slightly differently: they talk about the project having a “pointy tip” which is articulated in a way that appeals to a broad base of interests. It’s never just one thing, and therefore is able to be part of multiple narratives at different moments, retaining the best possible chance to break through blockages or other adversarial moments. Kulttuurisauna can be a place to sauna and swim in the center of Helsinki; it’s also an experiment in highly efficient energy use for a small building; it’s also a rare example of contemporary architecture in Helsinki; and so forth. The strength of the proposal supports multiple stories.

Having a good idea is not enough. The narrative of the proposal must also be compelling, and compellingly presented and shared again and again during the course of the project. That’s the pointy tip.



Source: Kulttuurisauna

Many thanks to Tuomas and Nene for sharing their exciting project with us. Having survived a two year process of design and development, they’re now in the full swing of construction and hope to have the sauna open this summer. In our own words, here’s what we learned from them, abstracted up a level to be generally useful for Brickstarter:

  • Transparent (or better yet, legible) processes lower the barrier to entry and attract a more diverse pool of applicants. Important if you’re interested in diversity, as any good city will be.
  • When considering innovative projects, extra time should be allocated to explore risks through a collaborative process, sharing the cost of this between entrepreneur and institution.
  • There’s opportunity for careful innovation in appeals procedures that take into account individual rights together with the costs incurred by this right.
  • Good ideas are not enough. A strong narratives is important too.
Why do I blog this?
Although we’ve known about the Kulttuurisauna for a while now, it was not until recently that I understood the winding path that Tuomas and Nene followed to get to this point. Hearing of their travails with the community meetings and all of the efforts to endear this project to their future neighbors, it became clear that we have a lot to learn. In our discussion, the last point about the importance of the narrative and the power of personal commitment bubbled up as key themes. Today we live in a world filled with abstractions: properties built by developers have no client, per se, they’re abstract or distant from real people. They’re drained of idiosyncrasies in order to be imminently salable. But those idiosyncratic details, those slight but risky choices, they are the things that give our best cities texture and make places livable. Brickstarter is about making it easier to bring that texture to the city, so learning from lead users like Nene and Tuomas is essential.

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2 comments on ‘Conversation with Nene Tsuboi & Tuomas Toivonen (Kulttuurisauna)’

  1. Stassel says:

    Very nice blog post.
    Especially the last point about the narrative is a good one; for me it could mean one of things what ‘design’ is: not just a vision but a way towards it, the language used and the words spoken.

  2. Ben Feole says:

    Awesome find, congratulations on having the courage to create something like this place. Wonderful. Nothing better than soaking in a hot bath to restore the body…

    The other day, at the gym, they put “yuzu,” a citrus, in the bath, which they do on the winter solstice.

    Ben, Asahi, Japan.

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