By Anastasiia Gerasimova
Architects traditionally define cities through their most common spatial types. For example, London is a city of Georgian squares, Paris is a city of arcades, New York is a city of brownstones, and Berlin is a city of the mietskaseme block. The banya therefore becomes an equivalent type for Saint Petersburg. This architectural taxonomy of the type was based on Saint Petersburg because it is said to be a “city of banyas.”
A banya is a traditional Russian steam bath. It is a type that has evolved from a space of everyday life, to one of urban ritual, to a utilitarian space of hygiene, to a place of celebration. It is both a cultural and a morphological type that is unique to Russian society, whether urban or rural. Spatially, the banya is very flexible and its form is malleable, allowing it to reflect multiple cultural and social changes through time. Through the evolution of the banya, we can read different patterns of spaces and different degrees of shared intimacy in the city. Even though the banya is a traditional type in Russia, it is only ever defined by its interiors and structure, and never codified or celebrated as a distinct architectural form because this form is so varied. Despite the cultural and infrastructural significance of the banya in Russia, this type has not been thoroughly studied before. The aim of this project is therefore to document and analyse the history of the banya, to create an archaeology of this type and understand how it remains relevant as both an interior form and as an urban model in contemporary Russia.
Historically, the land on which the Saint Petersburg sits was a swamp, reclaimed by a polder—artificial, experimental land. There is a myth that the city was built on the bones of those who built it. It is a wet, humid city, whose grid was defined not by streets but by the water system of its canals. Seemingly constant rain makes the city atmosphere wet, even depressive. It is also a fake city. The urban facades are meant to make Saint Petersburg look like the city of Peter the Great, but when you pass through any arch you find the city of Dostoevsky inside. It is a city that tries to be a European, Amsterdam-like city yet with buildings modelled on Italian classicism. Perhaps the only truly Russian thing about Saint Petersburg is its banyas. In understanding the banya as a form that defines the city, Saint Petersburg is represented through the only truly Russian element that it has.
The banya began as a single steam room, an extension to the house or more often as a shared space between three households (See Image 1). It then became an isolated bath pavilion including laundry and other programs. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was introduced into the city as a more collective space, embedded within the urban fabric. In the Soviet Union, it became a large and exceptional collective space embedded within the micro districts. Finally, it became a multifunctional entertainment space or returned to being a private steam room within apartments. The history of the country can be seen through the transformation of the banya. The evolution of the banya also directly relates to changing representations of the body, from beauty in imperial Russia, to the cult of a healthy body in the Soviet Union, and even to contemporary pornography.
The Imperial Period
Peter the Great’s own banya did not differ from that of any Russian peasant, emphasising that titles and nobility play no role in a banya. The primordial banya consisted only of a steam room, which is the only space in a banya that has never changed. At the time of Peter the Great (he ruled as Tsar from 1682 to 1721 and as Emperor from 1721 until his death in 1725), these banyas did not have modern pipes or ducts and were called “black banyas,” because of the smoke that would enter inside. In 1704, once banyas with piping were more widespread, Peter introduced a tax on pipes in order to make money from what was considered a common necessity. (1) It was during the 17th century that individual banyas, known as bath pavilions, began to emerge, though they were mostly owned by noblemen (See Image 2, 3, 4).
Peter the Great was a supporter of introducing banyas into the city as a collective space. With increased urbanisation, the rituals of the banya became more internalised. Initially, a banya depended only on the connection of interior and exterior spaces by going from an overheated room to cold natural water. In the traditional banya there is not only the human who is present, but also the presence of nature because of the direct connection to wood, fire, and water—banyas were originally located next to rivers. Today, banyas are mostly amputated from the natural environment and relocated to the concrete setting of inner urban districts.
Banyas did not have gender segregation before 1743. Divisions and hierarchies were introduced in the banyas of the 18th and 19th centuries: these banyas were mostly located in revenue and tax houses and built of more permanent materials like brick and stone. The separation between man and woman was organised both horizontally and vertically. Within this gender division, there was also a hierarchical division, organised according to three or four social classes. This hierarchy was defined within each banya by the size of spaces, additional functions and their price, and the introduction of interior details like carpets, flowers, and soft couches instead of wooden benches. However, additional functions like leisure swimming pools were first introduced only for the use of the men, underlining the domestic role of the woman in society at that time (See Image 5, 6, 7).
The Soviet Period
Both the construction and the deconstruction of ideologies can be seen through the evolution of the banya. The Soviet renovation of banyas from the Imperial period included the demolition of walls that divided rooms according to hierarchy, in order to create larger collective spaces. The heavy stone benches in washing areas were replaced with lighter more flexible furniture, responding to modern trends in free planning. As these spaces expanded to accommodate more people, some apartments in revenue houses were reorganised to include a banya (See Image 8, 9).
The role of the banya as a social condenser increased in the Soviet era. To achieve this, new communal functions were added. In 1919 the universal type of a collective banya was invented which included a swimming pool, showers, baths, laundry as well as the traditional steam rooms. Later, the core programme of the banya, the steam room, was subordinated by sport facilities in huge complexes that were seen to embody a new hygienic life. The official name of the type was changed to “building of a thermal type,” which could be more freely interpreted. (2) The banya became a massive structure, a bath hub (See Image 10, 11).
The largest banyas were the Gigant and Kruglaya banyas, built in Saint Petersburg in the 1920s. which accommodated 4000 visitors per day. Through these monuments to communal space, the myth about sharing everything became a reality. Shared nudity on such a massive urban scale became an allegory of a naked communism. The collective was also represented in the parades of physical culture in Red Square, where the mass of athletes constructed one single body, healthy, strong and clean (See Image 12, 13).
However, even with this collectivism, social inequality persisted within the banya where nudity was not only separated by gender, but also by class: the smaller and more intimate the space, the higher the class of its users. Since emphasis was placed on social hygiene and health care, especially for a younger generation, there were other programmatic additions like rooms for mothers with children, which had small scale showers, seats, wardrobes, toilets, and swimming pools for the infants. During the Soviet period, banyas became more standardized in in terms of materials. This was particularly visible through colour since a standard blue paint was used as well as the same yellow and brown tiles that were distributed across the country.
The Post-Soviet Period
In the 1990s, additional commercial programmes appeared in banyas, like jacuzzis, billiards, and pole-dancing. This was a reflection of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise of individual independence, social and economic freedom and the appearance of the Russian mafia. At that time, the banya became a place for a select group of people to make political and economic decisions in private VIP rooms. This change in the role of the banya was also reflected in spatial organization, visible through the introduction of two exits for different types of client. Since the shift to a capitalist economy there has been a huge growth in fitness centres and banyas have found their place within this growth as small sauna rooms. The collapse of common ideals is also reflected in the presence of steam rooms as bathroom extensions in private apartments. Today, all collective banyas have been privatized and restored (See Image 14).
Throughout history, the banya has remained an exceptional space, a space to share secrets, an emancipatory space from a dominant regime, the space of a good life. It has also always been a space of ritualized process, where everyone removes the layers of clothes and dirt from their bodies, a space for sharing thoughts, releasing emotions, or staying within oneself. The banya was also a place for ritual ceremonies associated with phases of life, such as before a wedding, for conception, for giving birth, and before burial. It is a place of transition, even a spiritual place. (3) As such, it has also been part of the development of mythology, whether related to Slavic folklore or communist ideologies. In traditional Russian culture it is imagined that there is a creature, Bannik, a spirit who lives in the banya. At night, he invites other spirits living in the forest, rivers and elsewhere to bath with him. Bannik suggests a union of natural and domestic spirits, which symbolizes the harmony of human cohabitation within all the other elements. In this sense, Bannik, is not only an anthropomorphization of an architectural type, but also a symbol of a metaphysical presence of the banya in Russia, which addresses intimacy, nudity, collectivity and the idea of the banya as a bearer of the good life.
The Naked Collective
In Russian society, the value of the collective and the common was always very high. This collectivism expressed itself on many different levels, but spatially it was especially representative in the form of the banya. Through the figure of the banya, collective nakedness and communal intimacy became a cultural condition, one that developed through different periods and their ideological changes. The archeology of that intimacy has its own development, and each stage is characterized by certain materials, sizes and spatial configurations that tell their own story. The banya is the most collective, yet also the most intimate space for Russians. The constant transformation of the banya shows the perpetual adaptation and eternal presence of this type in a Russian context. This type is relevant not only in terms of architectural knowledge, but also in how it describes relationships between body and space. Ironically, the banya’s degrees of intimacy demonstrate private-public issues, hierarchy, complex relations of gender, and many other layers of myth, through the most unvarnished state, the state of nakedness. Nudity is a condition relieved of any hierarchical differentiation by the theology of layers of clothes and other masks. (4) Consequently, the true collective is a naked collective.
(1) Kli︠u︡chevskiĭ, V. O. Kurs Russkoĭ Istorii. Moscow: Eksmo, 2009.
(2) Khan-Magomedov, Selim. Architecture of Soviet Avant-Garde. Vol. 2. Social Problems. Moscow: Stroyizdat, 1996.
(3) Rubinov, Anatoliĭ. Istorii︠a︡ Bani. Moskva: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 2006.
(4) Agamben, Giorgio, and David Kishik. Nudities. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2010. (self-translated from Russian)
Anastasiia Gerasimova is an architect currently working in Rotterdam at Studio Makkink & Bey. She studied architecture in Russia, Austria, and the Netherlands. She began her on-going research about the culture and aesthetics of the banya, the traditional Russian steam bath, at The Berlage Centre for Advanced Studies in Architecture and Urban Design.