The Cadyville Sauna, Cadyville, NY

The Cadyville Sauna was designed and constructed along the Saranac River in upstate New York. It is a compact structure, covered with mirrors. It is built up against a cliff, and the wall of rock forms one interior wall of the sauna.

Twenty feet below the sauna the river coils into a deep and powerful whirlpool, spinning reflections of sunlight back up on the rocks around it and the sauna above it.

Questioning appearances, the surfaces of itself or of things around it, the Cadyville Sauna casts a veil of doubt over what we see as the arrangement of existing structures that make up our world.  Even the natural world, in which the small structure is immersed, is found, through its own mirroring, to contain eddies of uncertainty and rivulets of contradiction. What appears to be one thing, one space, one tree, actually turns out to be its double, its inverse, and its representation reduced to the thinness of silver film.  Or, one could read it another way; rather than a complicated mirror-image, perhaps the dysapparent structure dissolves instead, becoming phenomenally nonexistent, and evaporates into the surrounding environment. Regardless of the path, the result remains the same: the structure has become d-y-s-apparent (from dysfunctional), as if the sauna has donned some strange and perfect camouflage.

Camouflage is a very complicated condition.  It is, at a profound level, a dissolution of the object into the space around it, an obfuscation of the figure/ground condition.  The body’s, (or building’s, or landscape’s) dissolve in camouflage contradicts what is perhaps the most basic of human needs: the bodily need to remain intact.  And here we encounter the wonderful paradox of camouflage: in order for the human being to remain alive, its intactness (wholeness) must appear to dissolve (become partial), or disappear altogether.  

When we think about camouflage in terms of its impact on the body -and on architecture- it cuts to the core of our very existence because, politically and socially and ontologically, it radically challenges some basic assumptions about boundaries; especially the boundaries of our bodies, the boundaries between subject and world, and by extension, the boundaries of architecture.  The psychology of this phenomenon has been studied by Roger Caillois in his essay on mimicry.  Speaking of the insects which look like the twigs they sit on, and translating this mimicry (camouflage) into a human pathology which says, “I know where I am, but I do not feel as though I'm at the spot where I find myself.”, Caillois explains:

“To these dispossessed souls, space seems to be a devouring force.  Space pursues them, encircles them, digests them in a gigantic phagocytosis.  It ends by replacing them.  Then the body separates itself from thought, the individual breaks the boundary of his skin and occupies the other side of his senses. . . He  feels himself becoming space (…)  The feeling of personality, considered as the organism’s feeling of distinction from its surroundings, of the connection between consciousness and a particular point in space, cannot fail under these conditions to be seriously undermined.” - Roger Caillois, Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia, 1938

Herein lies the problem confronting the Cadyville Sauna:  where is the limit of the building’s  “personality”?  How could one ever begin to draw conventional plans and sections of this diminutive structure?  Where would one place the line?  The sauna’s edge is not simply the surface of glass.  This surface, and, by extension the building as a whole, loses itself in the landscape just as the landscape tends to lose itself into the sauna. 

The exterior relation of building-to-nature is reflected (with some significant transformations) on the interior where the shift in scale translates to an interrogation of the interstices between building and body.  In the interior of the sauna surface and form are, on one level, clarified and composed. What could be more certain than a space where everything is within reach, within touch – wood and stone in an undoubtable haptic enwrapture. But in fact, this very enwrapture, combined with the sauna’s intense thermal conditions, actually works to dissolve the interior into a kind of thick space where surface and form lose much of their traditional meaning: as the heat envelops and penetrates the skin the body relaxes, heats up, and begins to sweat. Sweat pours out through pores into the room, it mingles with the hot, close air, and is absorbed by the warm wood. When water pours over the stones the interior space of this architecture fogs moistly while the width of the boards imprints on the naked skin, into flesh. The space then, actually becomes material: thickening with heat and moisture, and the deep smells of cedar, space becomes a palpable substance.

The experience, the phenomenological perception, is that of a bodily dissolve, a slide into indiscernible corporeal geographies.  Where is the point at which body stops, and space starts? 

Or, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty puts it,

“Where are we to put the limit between the body and the world, since the world is flesh?  (...) That means that my body is made of the same flesh as the world (it is a perceived), and moreover that this flesh of my body is shared by the world, the world reflects it, encroaches upon it and it encroaches upon the world, they are in a relation of transgression or of overlapping. . .” - Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 1968

The space of the sauna presents a condition to the body uncannily similar to the problem which the mirror presents to the building.  Both conditions produce a blur, a fogging, or dissipation of form. A space of overlap between figure and field. Both conditions seen together add up to the following equation:  body is to sauna, as sauna is to world.

Source: Dan Hisel, Architect

Location: Cadyville, NY
Size: 100 sf
Cost: $10,000 (materials only)
Exterior Materials: Stone, cedar, and Mirrors
Interior Materials: Clear red cedar, natural cliff face