by Jincy IypeJan 13, 2023
From Turkish hammams to Japanese onsens, the architectural typology of public baths and saunas has existed as early as the Neolithic Age, evolving over years to adapt to shifting cultures and societal norms. Historically and culturally, natural hot springs or man-made thermal baths and steam rooms have played a significant role in bringing communities together, stripping people of their social distinctions, aided by an architecture of pure relaxation, focusing on cleansing, and releasing toxins. What would a reimagination of this prevailing aesthetic and form, of a typical bathhouse and spa through means of a dynamic and contemporary architecture that energises, heals, and recharges, be?
FORMA envisions a new typology in the American West by clubbing the leisure activities of a bathhouse with the utilitarian functions of a data centre, with this ultra-pink drawing board project, boasting stark vertical geometries akin to giant iceberg clusters and high volcanoes. Bold and pretty in concrete, the conceptual design titled Pink Thermal Baths is imagined near a resort in Biskra Palms, California, the United States, conceived as the new destination getaway to recharge one’s body and soul, as an architecture of happiness and rejuvenation.
American architects Miroslava Brooks and Daniel Markiewicz, founding partners and principals of FORMA elaborate on the project’s intent: "A bathhouse is an ancient typology, present across many different cultures throughout history, as a place of communal gathering. A data centre is a modern invention, often hidden from our everyday lives, yet indispensable for our ever-connected digital reality. We wanted to create a symbiotic relationship between the two: The above-ground bathhouse is functionally dependent on the subterranean data centre.”
"Like the ephemerality of the global data flows, the data centre is fully subterranean and hidden from sight. All the visual, auditory, and olfactory experiences are concentrated within the exuberant colourful interiors of the square bathhouse. The excess heat from the servers is dispersed into the pools, providing a hot spring-like experience, while the conic shapes of the various rooms add a touch of calming monumentality and help to control interior air temperatures, drawing the warm air upwards and maintaining the indoor environment,” Brooks and Markiewicz explain.
The duality of concrete as a strong, bold material is contrasted with the rendering offered by the soft, nurturing, innocent yet passionate energy of pink, seemingly making one feel happy when blue. FORMA shares their reasoning for choosing the vital colour—"Although we tested different colour variations, including the more typical blue tones of many spas and bathhouses, we settled on deeply saturated pink, as it provided a strong sense of identity and atmosphere. Pink, together with the building form, creates a high contrast between the structure and the surrounding landscape on the exterior, while within the interiors the rich blue water pools are visually distinct from the surrounding pink walls and ceilings.”
"One could argue that on the most fundamental level, architects give form to ideas, desires, and needs through buildings. We also like that form is both a noun and a verb. It describes what things look like—the form of a tree—and it also propels one to action—let’s form a team. For us, form encompasses all the complexities of our built environment and is inseparable from aesthetic, economic, environmental, and technological issues. Therefore, FORMA seemed like the most appropriate and straightforward name for our studio. Regarding our design philosophy, it is quite simple: to create bold and beautiful architecture for the betterment of all,” Brooks and Markiewicz elaborate on their studio’s name and creative ethos.
According to the architects, from the exterior, the American architecture looks almost scaleless, not belonging to any particular context or continent—a kind of undetermined mountainscape. From the outside, the aggregation of conic volumes provides the Pink Thermal Baths with its distinct, dynamic identity, while the glorious, expansive insides are almost like a series of individualised interiors—a cityscape of communal activities.
"Following a seemingly clear square perimeter, the structure features a series of leaky, permeable thresholds around all four sides, without a dominant and clear direction. We are perpetually interested in projects that comprise seeming opposites—rigid and loose, inside and outside, leisure and utility—and what brings them to fruition is by combining them in new and unexpected ways,” they continue.
Almost like a modern, abstract citadel on parched, flat grounds, the 2972.89 sqm proposal sought to answer the firm’s question—“why not capitalise on the wasted heat?” Markiewicz and Brooks reveal how the concrete architecture’s location within a Californian desert influences its design—"Desert landscapes perceptually operate on a much larger scale than our human body—vast expanses of land and sky for miles to see. It can be calming and unsettling at the same time. So, how does one operate in such a context? The project needed to be bold enough as not to get lost in the vastness of the desert, while also providing more intimate spaces for gathering and relaxation once the visitors enter. The California desert location also allowed us to keep most of the interior spaces unconditioned; the tall conic volumes would cool the interiors throughout hot summer days, while the heat from the servers would keep the pools and adjacent interiors warm during cooler nights and seasons.”
FORMA also sought to unify the idiosyncratic form through singular materiality—the imaginary architecture’s conic roofs, the walls, and the constructed ground are visually cohesive, inside, and outside, yet formally and spatially distinct. Hence, concrete materiality was deemed perfect for this. Its malleability and uniform appearance, paired with a relatively high degree of pigmentation and surface texture customisation, would help achieve the desired aesthetic effect and environmental performance.
Upon the initial check-in area which is linked to the changing rooms with showers and restrooms, most of the plan is organised in a non-hierarchical way. This means that although there is a central pool area with a large square skylight above, the adjacent spaces can be freely explored without a prescribed circulation. Four secondary pools, each monumental and enjoying its own skylight and unique form, extend into the landscape beyond the building’s periphery, constantly reconnecting the visitor with the surrounding desert through various openings. "The intention was to create exteriorised interiors that feel monumental and intimate at the same time,” relays the studio based in New York City, and Los Angeles.
Conceived as a landmark architecture, Pink Thermal Baths is a self-initiated design research into new hybrid typologies. “Although it is not a commissioned project, we certainly believe it could be realised with the right client or investor. Neither data centres nor people’s desire for inspiring places to gather and relax will go away in the near future, so why not invest in their co-existence for the benefit of both? We think there is a lot of potential in projects like this, where utilitarian functions are paired with communal and cultural programs,” shares FORMA.
"One of the fundamental themes explored in this project, and recurring in our practice, is the idea that a building is not a hermetically enclosed interior design but rather its inside might be more closely connected to the surrounding environment. The project continues our search for formal, organisational, and material strategies that create a closer relationship between buildings and landscapes,” they conclude.