Benevolent Giants Buoy Us Softly into a Healing Wilderness of Steam

A guided sound bath & interview w/ Amy Louie and Cooper Rogers of Waters Bathing Collective

This interview took place under the shade of a eucalyptus grove inside a partially-completed mobile sauna at Amy Louie and Cooper Rogers’s Good Hot Sauna pop-up out in Richmond. Amy and Cooper are two architects in the process of starting The Waters Bathing Collective, an accessible, community hot tub in the East Bay. They are interested not only in creating beautiful buildings but in how those buildings relate to access, labor and care. How the life of a built thing might fit into the lives of the people who design it, build it, and use it. While we talked, Amy and Cooper occasionally got up to tend to their guests, providing them with tea, or helping to orient them on proper outdoor shower use (the constant, punishing wind is your “friend”), or to encourage someone to skitter across the rocks for a cold plunge in the nearby bay.
    After this conversation, we all crossed the dirt road, changed into our bathing suits, sat together in a *functional* sauna, and sweat. We’re not sure if a podcast has ever been made in a working sauna—and actually, none of this actually even really got made inside the sauna. After a while of patiently answering our increasingly trippy, over-heated-brain questions, we all had to hop out after Amy suffered a bad allergic reaction to a smoothie she’d sipped during our break. Also our recorder may have overheated and stopped working. So that was that.
    We left Amy and Cooper to their work (and medical necessities!) and took a walk along the shore: abandoned RVs, functional RVs, huge sewer pipes spray-painted with phone numbers for interested buyers, a nesting osprey, a collapsing shed, a huge blue highway sign that said “Butts End,” and persistent, gusting wind. After an ill-thought-out excursion to the Burning Man bar-b-que boat on the other side of the isthmus, we emailed Amy and Cooper our trippier questions, and across time and space and patience and multiple different takes, their answers have become the sound bath companion to this interview. You can access it by visiting anchor.fm/40trilliondpi (or wherever you get your podcasts). Anyway, we hope you enjoy our conversation with Amy and Cooper who were so generous with their time and energy for this interview. We also hope you check out the saunas for yourselves if you get the chance. Okay, we clearly have a lot to get into. Let’s get started! —Justin + Helen

JUSTIN: I think this probably won’t go into the piece, but I wanted to have you guys give a little sort of background. How did this start? What's the origin of this? What was the moment where you were like, Time to get in some hot spaces together?

COOPER: Amy and I met through architecture school and we did a lot of work together. We were the editors of the architecture journal at Cal together. Amy was the layout editor. I was the content editor and we taught together. We took classes together. And a lot of it came about sort of three-quarters of the way through architecture grad school. We were starting to think ahead—looking ahead at our prospects, and being close with some, sort of, versions of ourselves who were like, 10 years older. Professors who did the work that we thought we wanted to do, took the paths that we were interested in. And we started kind of just seeing how fucked up they were. I remember specifically we were in a class with this professor—who's a great teacher, great architect, and has had really cool jobs and cool work. And he was like, I went up to Mendocino this weekend and all I want to do is just run an Airbnb and never talk about architecture again. There's a pretty direct through-line from that moment to where we are now.

AMY: I remember one day we were sitting in the kitchen and—I don't know—we were looking at some images of that woodworker in Pennsylvania who did that little bath. Nakashima. The Nakashima bath. George Nakashima. And Cooper was just like, You want to start a bath house? Sort of like that. In that moment I was just like—Yeah, let's do that.
    Also Cooper and I were both lucky enough to get these travel grants one summer while we were in school. I was fortunate enough to travel and look at bath houses around the world. And so that was also a really big source of inspiration. I think we were just both interested in some alternative way of practicing. And I think we realized very much that part of our interest in design was also designing the work around design. That has always been a really big part of the project. Not just about designing beautiful things or an interest in sort of formal output, but also how do we craft a world for ourselves and the people that are involved that feels good and wholesome and righteous?

COOPER: And doing as little harm as possible. The journal that we edited together, the first theme was “work.” And it was sort of a materialist-socialist look at the profession of architecture and building in general. This got me thinking about labor in so many of our projects. In the ideal bathhouse project, do I work three days a week? Four days a week? Do you have a rotating month off where you travel? Do we get paid to travel and learn? It's been about designing a work-life in a lot of ways.

JUSTIN: This makes me think so much of the idea of maintenance. About facilitating others’, relaxation. I was talking with a friend yesterday about being a trip-sitter—someone who is relatively sober and hangs with others while they do drugs. I'm totally down for that. Like, if someone says: Yo I want to do some drugs—I’m like, Great. Get my backpack, get the water. We're going to go on a walk. I'm totally down for that. Like, when I'm at a party, I like to have a job.

HELEN: You like to have a job at a party? Oh whoa, okay—

JUSTIN: Yeah—I have to struggle to go the other way. But anyways, when I came to the sauna the other day, I was really surprised by how thoughtful you guys were around our experience. I can tell that's really important to you. It's interesting to think about how that care can become—or at least in our culture—is really often articulated as a slog job. It's considered a shitty job. Like, the people who are in charge of facilitating others, leisure are often really pushed aside, invisibilized, you know? Have you felt that it's been a good balance so far around maintenance?

COOPER: I think we're still on the brink of what it actually is going to be. We're still sort of building it and starting it. So I don't think we've quite entered the stage where we get a sense for what the reality of running it is going to feel like. But I think up until now, it's felt nice. A lot of our conversations are about service work because we both have done a lot of service work in our past. COVID has also brought so much of this to the fore. Things like having a worker ownership model where people have the ability to control their working conditions, especially when they're doing service work—and also the share of ownership and share of profit that comes with that. During the pandemic, everyone was like, a) I have to work in these situations that don't feel safe and I have to have absolutely no control over it or I'll get fired and b) my boss just got a million dollar loan from the government.
    That said—unemployment has been incredibly dope. I remember last summer making protest art during the uprisings—and everyone was like, Oh, I got this fucking this money! There was all this ink and paint and paper everywhere. I just started to see how necessary a different model is. And it feels very different than when you go to a bathhouse and somebody comes back and squeegees the floor. And you're like, I know that person's making minimum wage and I'm having this leisure experience. It’s not very relaxing.

AMY: I mean, I think that the issue of maintenance is really interesting. Especially thinking about an alternative practice or relationship to the thing you're designing. In the profession of architecture, you get to design something for someone and then the thing gets built, then you never see it again. And I think Cooper and I were interested in thinking about potentially having a sustained—or, longer, slower relationship with a building or a space. So that was also a lot of the impetus behind the project. Thinking about how we design these things. How can we design them in a way that cleaning them would be bearable. We're going to be doing that—we’ll be working on our hands and knees and serving these things. How can that work? And so that definitely informed our design process.

JUSTIN: It's a bummer to think that that's even a radical thing to say. Like it makes me sad. Well not sad but—it makes me happy that you're doing that. It makes me sad that the default is like, Well, let’s just make this job miserable for people. That these people doing this work are not thought about. That that work is not centered.

AMY: Especially in thinking about wanting to do socially just or culturally conscious work. I think that in design, there's a romanticization that buildings can do these things or objects can do these things. And I think what Cooper and I realized throughout this project is that the saunas don't do anything. They're a thing, but they don't have agency. That gets imbued through like the work that we do and how we relate to the building and the people that come through. The work of maintaining these spaces—greeting people and cleaning them was always a very important and special part of the process.

HELEN: I'm curious as to just how y'all envision the saunas in relationship to the existing communities that are out here. You have that kind of glamping angle that's going on. There's the pirate barbecue place. There's the truckers. I think you mentioned the house boating community on the other side of the hill. What are the symbiotic connections around these things and how does that inform the experience?

AMY: I think it's a constant negotiation as far as how we relate to the things and the people around us. It's funny. It is a little bit of a constant source of anxiety. Everything is constantly in flux—but I think like that's part of the charm of the space in a way. You come here and it’s sort of a hodgepodge of things. There is a long history of people who've been here and things that have happened—there’s industry and the whaling and the shipbuilding—and, you know, we got the truckers next door, and these people who roll up in their Sprinter vans. I think we're still trying to wrap our heads around how to let go of the things we can't control and how to just be in harmony with all these people and things that are changing.
    That reminds me of when we were walking around here and trying to figure out the orientation of things in order to negotiate a relationship with the neighbor next door. It's kind of like when you [sketch], it's almost like the area becomes this mini urban design project. Like, here is our thing. And industry goes... here, the commercial stuff is over... here—this is where residential is happening. It was sort of like we were urban planners trying to figure out how the city's going to be or something.

JUSTIN: Like Sim City!

AMY: Yeah, exactly! It’s hard because ultimately the heart of the project is that it's an inclusive space. So, like, it's supposed to be for everyone but also—how do we maintain comfort and safety? How do we figure that out when the borders are very porous and fluid? When do we have to put up some privacy screens, you know? I think that that question is very much in flux—we’re figuring it out.

JUSTIN: Is there something that you thought was going to be really important that isn't? Or the opposite? Is there something that you think now that we’re out here, this has been clutch?

AMY: At the beginning of the project, we were thinking: it's all about the saunas. It's about producing these beautiful little jewel boxes and that's the project. And then we put them out there and we were like: Oh no, it's not about the saunas anymore. It's about the stuff around the saunas. And then we were like, Oh, that stuff doesn't matter. It's about us. It’s about how we kind of interface with the people. It's funny how it evolved from being very much about designing and building these very beautiful things to seeing that it's so much more than that.
    As far as what's been really clutch? Tea service. People love the tea. The bay. Proximity to the bay. People love getting in the water. That's a whole other thing that we kind of never expected. The project is quite site specific. I think there’s the novelty and the excitement of being able to jump in the water. In some ways it’s about facilitating a new kind of relationship and interaction with the bay water. I hadn't been in the bay before I did this project.

JUSTIN: I told a couple people about this project and that it's right by the bay and that to cold plunge you have to jump in—and they were like, Is that safe?

HELEN: That's so funny! I jumped in a bunch of times. I forgot I had newly pierced ears and I didn't get infected ears. I don't know. I wasn’t thinking about it. Like, Oops. I just did it again by accident.
    I love being in the bay. It reminds me a lot actually of how the saunas were set up in Finland. You’re just hanging out by a lake and you can smoke meat at one level and soak on the other. And nobody's like, Oh my God, is it toxic to be here? I don't like it. I think the relationship to nature is kind of already a given there. It’s kind of ingrained as part of the culture. I think we have been conditionedin a totally different way living in cities and urban spaces. I think that people’s fear of the bay is a reflection of that.

COOPER: There's something too about the usual quality of engagement with the water—it's an adrenaline engagement, it's an extreme sporting game. To get into the water in Northern California, either you’re surfing, wind surfing, sailing—it's all these high-octane wetsuit things. The saunas allow for a nice reframing of that engagement. To be slowly slipping into the water. It vastly expands the amount of people that would get in because most people are way too disinterested in the cold. But the sauna gives you warmth and allows you to actually get into the water. In that way it expands accessaway from the hardcore cold water people. Also, the water, by cooling you down does the same thing for the sauna. People who don't necessarily enjoy high heat can bring the cold from the water back into the sauna. So it's a really nice reciprocal relationship between the two.

JUSTIN: Where do you see this project fitting into people's lives? Sometimes there's a luxury idea of relaxation—it's a fancy meal rather than a cheap slice after work, you know? Do you have any thoughts about how to imagine access as a part of people's daily lives?

AMY: We've talked about accessibility a lot around our original project of starting a bath house in Oakland. That was sort of the origins of the project and this sauna is more of a recent pivot. A big part of the project has always been about expanding access to leisure and making this as financially accessible as possible. Really looking into models in other parts of the world—as far as the bath house or the sauna being the commons. So for us, we hope for it to be something that people can do regularly, or at least not have it be a super high-end-spa, shi-shi, once a year birthday experience.
    It's definitely challenging because of the location. It's sort of a destination thing. This is something that Cooper and I are talking about and trying to negotiate all the time. How to make it as affordable as possible and still just being able to stay afloat. The real financial pressure to just be a business that stays alive is real. But then we’re like, Okay, how can we like make this? Like, What's, where's the sort of sweet spot?

COOPER: I think we're still sort of wrapping our heads around this iteration of the project. We worked for two years on the plan for a big bath house. It'd be like 15,000 square feet, tiled—or maybe not that big—10,000 square feet. Pools, sauna, steam room, café. Very much the intention with that was accessible leisure. Accessibility being one of the main ideas in many different definitions. In a dream world, this is all free. This is a municipal thing. This is a city thing. This is a cooperative thing. It's a public thing. And how do you square that? Trying to do a sort of semi-utopian project, you know? How do you take on a project like that in a reality that is frustrating?

Amy Louie is a designer from New York who moved to the Bay Area to pursue her Master of Architecture at UC Berkeley where she was the recipient of the 2019 Mario Ciampi Art in Architecture Award and the 2018 John K. Branner Traveling Fellowship. As a part of this fellowship, Amy spent three months traveling to Iceland, Morocco, Switzerland, Germany, Turkey, Hungary, Finland, Korea, and Japan, among other countries, researching bathhouses and public bathing cultures. This research was not only the genesis of The Waters, but has informed every level of its design, organization and ambition. Before beginning her studies in architecture, Amy cooked professionally in several New York City restaurants. Amy received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Wesleyan University. She is currently a Lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Architecture Program.

Cooper Rogers is from the Bay Area and a graduate of the UC Berkeley Master of Architecture program, where he was the recipient of the 2017 Design Workshop Award, 2019 Eisner Prize in Architecture, 2018 Howard Stump Memorial Fellowship and the 2018 John K. Branner Fellowship. He has contributed to and collaborated on a variety of ambitious community projects as a builder and designer, from sets for music videos and films, environmental design for large-scale parties and events, as well as fundraising and design of community spaces for organizations including Court 13 Arts. Cooper first fell in love with bathhouses when visiting Budapest as an 18 year old, delighted by the idea of community spaces entirely dedicated to leisure accessible to working class people. Cooper received his undergraduate degree from Oberlin College.