On my last trip to London, I was feeling the repercussions of the Brexit vote. The exodus was starting to take shape in the property market. My banker tenant had moved out and strategising how to rent out my bolt-hole over several pints of ale did little to shift a general feeling of despondence. I needed an uplift.
“Come to Helsinki. We go sauna. We eat. We party. We stay in prison,” came the Whatsapp message from Tomi, my Finnish, tech-guru friend. Did he really say ‘prison’? My last trip to the city was a pilgrimage to see the architecture of Alvar Aalto so the cryptic allure of Tomi’s agenda was enough to book a ticket.
Within minutes of arriving at the airport, we were speeding towards our first destination with carefree abandon, Brexit a distant memory. We pulled up at Helsinki’s port. Tomi was clearly entertained by my perplexed look. “So,” I asked, “Where’s the sauna?”
‘There!” he gleefully pointed to a ferris wheel on the promontory. No London Eye, it looked like it had been transported from a European recreation park. But as we drew close, it dawned on me. This structure of amusement had a solitary sauna dangling amid its many observation cabins.
Within minutes I was sans clothing with only a skimpy towel for modesty, scampering across a public space with my similarly naked friend. A bunch of German tourists who had opted for the standard observation cabin shot us puzzled looks. I’m no prude, but the Brit in me says public displays of flesh is just not ‘cricket’. Tomi on the other hand seemed to embrace his nakedness with baby-like delight.
We climbed inside the tiny, cedar-lined capsule. It claims to fit four, but the operator was clearly aiming for a more intimate experience than I was prepared for. As the wheel started to rotate, Tomi started lashing water onto the coals. I winced as the heat built up. Taking long swigs of Lonkero to distract myself from Dante’s inferno was futile; as was gazing out the window, which was perpetually misted up. I was starting to get light headed – no surprise as my supposed saviour drink was, unbeknownst to me at the time, gin and grapefruit soda.
After what felt like an eternity (5 minutes in actuality) the wheel came full circle. The door opened. A burst of cold air rushed in as I launched myself out to the open-air plunge pool. We jumped in and the sensation of hot to cold felt ethereal. Suitably recovered, we repeated the experience.
Sure, the food in Helsinki was good. And we certainly did party. And the prison? It was given a new lease of life by being converted into a rather marvelous boutique hotel. Clearly the Finns know a thing or two about design and recycling the unusual/unforeseen. But what I loved was that they don’t just turn an idea on its head; they rotate it a few times too.
Prof Jason Pomeroy is the founder of Singapore-based urbanism, architecture, design and research firm Pomeroy Studio. He also hosts the television series Smart Cities 2.0, City Time Traveller (Series 1 & 2) and City Redesign and believes that travel is a fundamental part of education.