Sanctuary Cities: The Rise of Urban Spas (for People Who Don’t Like Spas)

Sanctuary Cities: The Rise of Urban Spas (for People Who Don’t Like Spas)

Does the wellness industry’s growing ubiquity spell an end for the staid concept of the spa in urban environments?

dark and moody in the basement of a recently converted
1930s Williamsburg soda factory. A mural by Amit Greenberg (a
multi-disciplinary artist and designer who has collaborated with
names such as Louis Vuitton, Fendi and the iconic Parisian concept
store, Colette, which bid adieu to its adoring hipster public in
2017) spans a dimly lit wall. So far, so Brooklyn. Here though,
surrounded by buildings occupied by Brooklyn Brewery,
The Hoxton
and an event space run by urban fashion retailer
Kinfolk, lies a project whose inspiration stretches way beyond the
sort of retro for which this neighbourhood is renowned (and often
maligned) – we’re talking as far back as the third millennium BCE.
Greenberg’s mural – depicting an Roman bathing scene – is not
overlooking a reclaimed wooden table and a cocktail in a vintage
tankard dimly lit by sparse Edison bulbs, but rather a series of
thermal pools, heated marble hammams, cryotherapy kit and a
state-of-the-art sensory deprivation tank.

Bathhouse has preserved the original brickwork from
the old Brooklyn Bottling Company, along with a former 100ft-tall
smokestack, now serving as a private ritual bath area. The
contemporary aesthetic here – particularly at its street-level
restaurant and bar – is adequately on-brand for its location,
though it’s not a case of style over substance. Treatments are
overseen by a team of leading industry authorities whose
backgrounds include work for the Brooklyn Nets and New York City
Football Club. The facilities are ahead of the curve, as that
sensory deprivation tank (filled with Epsom salts to foster a
notion of mind-clearing weightlessness) suggests. Bathhouse is a
place of relaxation and high-end wellness for the creative class.
It’s a spa for people who don’t like spas.

Bathhouse, Brooklyn
En Paris

and water therapy, spas and retreats…they’re something naturally
associated with powdery sands and big stone Buddhas, fresh flowers
and the meditative sound of lapping waves. Relaxation, rejuvenation
and the pursuit of Zen may have an inexorable bond to remote
islands and high luxury, but in 2020 wellness is something that our
smartphones remind us to check in on each morning. The spa is still
an image of escape, but both our outer- and inner-wellbeing has
gone mainstream.

Today, Gwyneth Paltrow sells feel-good vibrators and gym lads
are doing circadian-synced intermittent fasting. Times are changing
for the industry. Day
and city-centre treatment rooms are nothing new and, for
many years, hotels have been locked in a battle of one-upmanship in
terms of their wellness offerings. But with a global city-dwelling
population that has exploded from 751 million in 1950 to 4.2
billion in 2018 and a dominant generation more aware than ever of
the importance of taking their foot off the gas, urban wellness is
a concept that will become impossible to ignore throughout this
next decade. What’s more, some big players are putting their money
where their mouths are.

The Willow, New York City

Luxury resort group Aman opened in Tokyo in 2014, while Six
Senses Resorts & Spas arrived in Singapore in 2018. Both are
set to open this year in New York, the latter featuring a
vibroacoustic meditation dome, bathhouse, magnesium pool and
holistic anti-ageing centre among more standard wellness-centric
offerings. This year will also see the debut of One&Only One
Za’abeel in Downtown Dubai, after the brand’s owners, Kerzner
International, announced the addition of urban resorts to its
portfolio in 2018. As the landscape of our cities and their
cultures shift to accommodate spiralling populations and changing
personal needs, the notion of an “urban retreat” needs to evolve in
order to keep pace.

While Six Senses New York – occupying two twisting towers
designed by the famous Danish architect, Bjarke Ingels – may seem a
world apart from the cool- café aesthetics of Brooklyn’s Bathhouse,
the colossal 136-room West Chelsea hotel will have at least one
thing in common with the Williamsburg locale: community.

The Well, Manhattan

Both Bathhouse’s plant-filled bar-restaurant and its wellness
centre have community at heart; its founders are keen to move away
from the shush of conventional spas and back toward the communal
essence upon which such spaces were founded. Six Senses New York’s
bathhouse – a series of social spaces designed to encourage guests
to come together – is underpinned by a similar principle. Community
and togetherness are, after all, notions intrinsic to the
birthplace of what we now know as a spa.

We must gaze back to some time around 2500 BCE to find the roots
of the “spa” concept, to the lost city of Mohenjo-daro, in what is
now Pakistan. Here the ruins of the Great Bath, thought to be the
earliest communal bath of the ancient world, exist as a monument to
the Indus Valley Civilisation. Indeed, it is from communal bathing
that we get the word “spa” (the acronym of salus per aquam, meaning
“health from water”), which was the name given to the eponymous
Belgian town where Roman soldiers would soothe their battle wounds
in hot mineral springs. Over centuries, public bathing would evolve
throughout the world, permeating culture after culture, but it
wasn’t until the early 1900s that the modern-day experience – all
facials, manicures and such – would begin to take shape and a
certain Elizabeth Arden would open the first ever day spa in, you
guessed it, New York City.

The spa experience as we know it today would boomed during the
1980s, and the 21st century has seen continued growth on a
staggering scale. The global wellness market is now estimated at
some $4.75 trillion. Yet times change, and there is a sense that
wellness is reaching a sort of ubiquity in line with, say, casual
dining. The evolution of the urban retreat is therefore a natural
progression – and progression is something at the core of a new
13,000sq ft, two-floor space in Manhattan’s Union Square.

The Well, Manhattan

“Your health has one address” reads The Well’s tagline, and for $375
a month you can use that address as a one-stop-shop to boost your
wellness inside and out. You’ll receive health coaching, mobility
assessments, private training and treatments that include
traditional Chinese medicine, bodywork, Ayurvedic guidance, sound
healing, emotional wellbeing and plenty more. A comprehensive
amalgamation of a reinvented day spa, fitness club and wellness
centre, The Well’s 360-degree approach to health has enjoyed
impressive early success, and thanks to big names in investment
behind it, you wouldn’t bet against it having a WeWork-style
assault on the international wellbeing space. As a vision for urban
wellness in the 2020s and beyond goes, it’s as revolutionary as one
may imagine.

Like Bathhouse, The Well exists in a space of contemporary
aesthetics that embraces the Instagrammable nature of hip coffee
shops and forward-thinking design hotels. Yet it’s not just in New
York where this wellness 2.0 is aligning itself with
style-conscious millennials; urban alternatives to the orthodox
concept of luxury spas are popping up in Melbourne,
Berlin and

Photogenic detox bowls full of colour and superfoods are served
up alongside reiki and vinyasa yoga in the posh Western Australian
suburb of Armadale, where Willow Urban Retreat offers a holistic approach to
health that imbibes its clients with “ambient tones, rhythmic
symmetry and purified air”. Like The Well on a micro-scale, Willow
brings together Eastern and Western philosophies in a comprehensive
ode to modern wellness, and does it all in the sort of compact
venue that, until recently, may have been an art gallery or pop-up
events space – accompanied by a produce-forward café, of

The Willow, New York City
The Willow, New York City

And in the German capital? The sort of wellness experience that
could only be conceived in Berlin. At Liquidrom electronic music is pumped underwater
into a warm saltwater pool with theatrical lighting; it’s the
leading draw of an architectural spa complex built to evoke the
sense of a circus tent. DJ performances soundtrack the main event,
while flotation pools, a Japanese-inspired outdoor bathhouse,
Finnish sauna and Himalayan salt cave are among the myriad of
amenities on hand throughout. It’s as urban as an urban wellness
experience could be.

In Canada, skyscrapers and industrial relics backdrop the Old
Port of Montreal, where relaxation seekers can board a customised
“floating spa”. Bota Bota offers a series of decks and pools, a
water circuit, saunas and multitude of treatments alongside a
garden and a restaurant with a health-forward culinary offering.
It’s the type of space you’d expect to find amid the solitude of a
Scandinavian lake, yet standing in the shadow of disused concrete
behemoths it’s as bold a reminder you’ll find of wellness’s
dramatic departure from oceanside retreats and essential oils.

En Paris

Resplendent in shiny gold and bold architectural forms, EN Paris
is a beauty space of ethereal whimsy and a retail outlet for a new
line of Japanese cosmetic products. In soothing treatment rooms,
bespoke facials and body massages take place, demonstrating that
one need not enter a dedicated spa space to reap the benefits of
the ubiquitous wellness industry. Back in New York, The Assembly is a co-working platform that raises
consciousness and wellbeing to the same level as networking and

That’s the evolution of wellness in a nutshell. From
push-notification reminders to practise your daily meditation to
co-working communities with gong baths and spiritual wellbeing
programmes, the notion of the “spa retreat” may be rapidly
shifting, but so too are our own personal journeys. We dine and
drink in evocative urban spaces, we attend progressive gallery
openings and stay in hotels that redefine design and experience –
so why shouldn’t wellness sit alongside it all? As urban wellness
escalates, the essence of the retreat will continue to imbue all we
do. In days when escapism was rare, rose petals and towel origami
served as signals to relax. Today, those signals could be anything
from exposed concrete to dance music. Welcome to the urban future
of wellness.