On the southern tip of Sompasaari, near the construction sites of Kalasatama, a sauna is being heated. It is quiet, as the sounds of the city do not reach Sompasauna. It feels like being out in the countryside, even though the centre of Helsinki is only a few kilometres away.
‘There is no traffic noise here, only an abundance of natural sounds. What we can hear is shouts and growls from the peacocks and lions in the nearby Korkeasaari zoo,’ says Matti Kinnunen, one of the sauna’s active users, laughing.
Sompasauna is a community-centred sauna, open to all, and anyone can heat it up at any time of the day, round the year.
A moneyless sauna community
Sompasaari has been in use in Nihtilaituri for nearly a decade. According to legend, a sauna stove was once discovered near the water, and the island’s first sauna was built around it. Nowadays, the island has three saunas.
‘Most of the building materials were received through donations from places like building sites, and the rest we acquired by ourselves. We have tried to use recycled material as much as possible and only buy new things when finding used ones has proved difficult,’ says Kinnunen.
Although there is no entry fee to the sauna, ‘free’ is not the most accurate word to describe Sompasauna. In return for the free access, the sauna’s users are expected to take part in the project, one way or another.
‘We ask that users bring firewood and water when they come here. And if anyone knows how to do carpentry or has any other special skills, we encourage them to use them for the benefit of this community.’
Some of the ideas of the users have led to the construction of a greenhouse and growing containers nearby to be freely used for cultivation. Kinnunen sees Sompasauna as a place where people can turn their ideas into reality and potter about without any obligations.
‘These days cities have few places where you can just freely go and hang out. This is such a place and genuinely one of the most relaxed ones.’
Buildings alone do not make a sauna
People in other parts of the country are showing interest in creating a similar sauna community, but Kinnunen has certain doubts about city-led and purpose-built communities.
After all, it is not about saunas, but people. This is a living and evolving community that is not tied to the buildings or the place, and the formation of a community like this cannot be forced.
Saunas are first and foremost meeting places. People there exchange news, make new acquaintances, and laugh and cry together. A sauna is a place where people are naked both physically and mentally.
Kinnunen has been in the sauna with experienced bathers, but also foreigners who had never before tried it. Part of Sompasauna’s attraction lies in the fact that you will never know beforehand who is going to turn up to bathe with you. The gentle heat coaxes people to share a story or two.
‘People come here to talk and keep each other company. Getting to know new people is easy in a sauna, and here you can find yourself a community you feel you belong to.’
A thin stream of smoke is rising from two of the three saunas’ chimneys. A couple of bathers walk barefoot from one sauna to the other. When asked about it, Kinnunen refuses to say which sauna is his favourite and says that everyone must decide that for themselves.