Here’s a spa-inspired design concept that knocked my socks off. Urban Therme, designed and concepted by Kyle Bigart and Andrew Sommerville, with graphics, brand, and presentation by Alex Paulette, is a fantastic community-minded project that the three completed for the 2015 Chicago Biennial Lakefront Kiosk Competition. I can’t imagine a better use of public park space, especially during the winter months. Impressed with the team’s vision and spa-inspired community concept, I reached out to Kyle Bigart to learn more.
Tell me a little bit about the three of you; how you came together on this project and how you work together.
Urban Therme was the first collaboration all three of us worked on together as a team. While all of us have degrees in architecture, Andrew also holds an MBA, and Alex is currently in graduate school for graphic design. Andrew and I met at Perkins+Will while sitting near each other and getting to work together on a project. Andrew and Alex met during undergrad studies at Cincinnati, College of Design, Art, Architecture, and Planning.
How did this project come to be? What was the seed?
The project was completed for the Chicago Architecture Biennial Lakefront Kiosk Competition. While Andrew and I were aware of the project for quite some time, we originally weren’t inspired by the prompt because we both individually felt it was asking for something the lakefront and city didn’t need. Eventually, Andrew and I started discussing the project more and we began throwing around crazy ideas. We realized as Chicagoans ourselves, the last thing the crowded summer lakefront needed was another congestion point formulated as a superficial retail spot. The request for an “iconic” form perplexed us as well; as designers we understand that icons manifest from among many things, the culture, city, and time, and are not in fact “designed.”
Thinking on the prompt some more, we got caught up with the great wasted space of the lakefront in cold weather . . . we started dreaming of ways to get people to the lakefront and what we would want and use ourselves. We thought of everything from sport activities, to shelters for ice fishermen. We knew that in order for the community and citizens to be involved, it couldn’t be a selective action or idea.
. . . nearly everyone can identify with a spa or relaxing experience at some scale at some time in their life. Whether it be jumping into a cold lake or holding your hands under warm water, on some level the spa idea is something that can bring everyone together.
The idea of a spa at the lakefront was formulated as an inclusive and warm way to bring people together, however, we first dismissed the idea as the competition end was drawing near; we actually didn’t have much time to work on the project. Fast forward a couple of days, and we still couldn’t shake the notion that a thermal spa was a legitimately great idea to activate the lakefront during the winter months! We understood it wasn’t what the competition wanted or how the prompt was set up, but we decided to pursue the idea, hoping that it could gain publicity eventually and let the public know what the lakefront doesn’t have to be, but what it could become.
At this point, we started more research and Andrew recommended bringing Alex into the team for her great graphic and branding skills, as we knew the public and cultural perception of a spa kiosk would be very important.
At InsidersGuidetoSpas, we believe that Community is one of the Seven Timeless Truths of Spa, one of the core fundamentals. This project exemplifies that in every way. Could you tell us more about your vision behind the thermal spa kiosks?
We completely agree that community is an essential part to the spa experience. When thinking of different programs, we thought of lots of activities and events that always seemed to be selective to a minority subset of the city (example: not everyone is an ice fisherman). In researching spas, we were really intrigued by the public and private duality that exists in communal bathing. Something that is perceived as private, becomes a very public experience as bonds are created with other bathers, and a connection is made in the relaxing environment. Furthermore, nearly everyone can identify with a spa or relaxing experience at some scale at some time in their life. Whether it be jumping into a cold lake or holding your hands under warm water, on some level the spa idea is something that can bring everyone together.
To translate this into the kiosk design, it was imperative for us to make the structure a public space that could function as a community focal point for all citizens and tourists whether in use or not. Additionally, the spa shouldn’t compete or distract from the world famous Chicago skyline that the citizens are rightfully very proud of. To solve this for instance, we rounded the edges of the spa and covered it in a matte black paneling, during the winter use at night, this helps the spa disappear against the skyline, preserving the picturesque views of the city. Furthering this, the idea of a master plan started to be brought into the program picture. Although the competition asked for a singular retail kiosk, we envisioned a community of spa experiences, applicable to many people that could traverse the entire lake shore sliding from each unique location and community to the next.
You say that you were inspired by ancient Roman spa archetypes. What did you find most inspiring about them, and how did you incorporate this into your design?
Ancient Rome was very advanced as a far as city life and culture goes, and an aspect of this was the spa. The bathing experience was a place where the community leaders, citizens, and senators would gather, talk politics, and gossip. The spa is where decisions were made. It was more than just a space—it was a ritual. Furthermore, the narrative of holistic health and relaxation, traveling from the caldarium to the tepidarium to the frigidarium, really spoke to us as something more than just an event.
Not only were we intrigued by this narrative, but also inspired by the ability for a “spa” to exist using completely sustainable technology from over 1,000 years ago. As the kiosks needed to be mobile, and we were calling for a large herd of them, utilizing Ancient Rome technology to keep the structures independent of the grid was a natural fit. This materializes in a major way through the hypocaust system designed to warm the water, changing rooms, and melt the snow for a rain catchment system, among many other sustainable technologies we implemented.
How did the name Urban Therme come to be?
We definitely struggled with the name for quite some time. At one point, we had several “working” names that Alex put together icons, logos, and whole design packages for. In the end, we searched for a name that could capture the anomaly of what we were attempting to create. The idea of an urban spa is almost counter intuitive, since you typically seek relaxation outside of the city lines into the next city over or a nearby “natural” environment. Labeling the kiosks as “Urban Therme” helped invoke this unique sensual experience while conveying an aspect of warmth and comfort during the winters. Really it’s about relaxing and unwinding through the healing aspects of a spa while enjoying the city views and connection to nature.
Do the three of you have a soft spot for spas? Do you go to spas? Do you have any favorite spas?
At the time of the project none of us had ever been to a formal spa, but we never thought of it as a hindrance with our design. As designers, we are always working on projects we may have little or no personal experience with. For example, we sometimes design churches although we may not be religious, gyms although we may not work out, and bars although we may not drink. In this aspect, the research, diagrams, and conceptual reasoning at the beginning of the project is very important in any design process (especially this one).
Because of the program- and community-driven nature of Urban Therme, this actually turned out to be easier than we thought. As mentioned before, the spa experience is something most of us are familiar with, and most people have had glimmers of spa experiences throughout their life . . . whether soaking up sun on a grassy field, or letting warm water wash over you for awhile in the shower—one of the big things we learned is that the “spa” is not an exclusive experience. So in reality, although we had never been to a formal spa, we had all experience, and no experience.
Since the competition, Andrew and Alex have both since gone to a spa, however I have yet to experience one. All of us would love for spas to eventually become a more regular part of our lives, as this project did help grow a soft spot for spas within us. I personally wish to visit the Therme Vals someday in Switzerland (design by Peter Zumthor).
What does the future hold for Urban Therme? We’d love to see Urban Thermes pop up in parks everywhere!
Unfortunately for us, Urban Therme is still a theoretical project. As of right now we have no “next plans” for the design or idea, we would have loved for it to win the competition, but we are just as much thrilled with the great response from the spa community! It has reinvigorated our interest with the project, and we are happily tossing around fun ideas of future dreams for the project. If the interest keeps growing as it had over the last couple of weeks, we may look to keep pursuing it and refining the project more and more in hopes that it may be realized in some fashion in the future.