Trading the wet cell for the living bathroom

Notes on the contemporary dismantling of the bathroom borders

The thought of water in the house is a paradox. As a descendant of the Arche (German for ‘ark’), architecture should actually protect us against water. What we most urgently desire of a house is a roof over the head. When the Romans used the Latin word tectum (roof), it was often in reference to the complete house (L. domus). Although houses do exist without walls (in the tropics, for example), there are most certainly no houses without a roof. While water that falls from the sky is worshiped as a source of life in agriculture, in architecture it bears the unfortunate taint of the destructive or transitory. A leaky roof brings decay and mold, and it can transform a parquet floor into a grim landscape of warped wood, curling upwards with such great force as to snap out of its rigid frame. Nothing disavows the reputation of architects like water damage; thus, it is only natural that they expend such an enormous amount of time on waterproofing their houses. Legion are the conflicts between builders and architects over unwanted water. Waterproof or not, that is here the question – all objections herewith denied. Physically, water is a torture to architects, if only because it has proven so difficult to control. Their toleration of it is less “toleration” than an aesthetic sublimation. In order to exorcise this suppressed “aquaphobia”, they surround their constructions with reflecting ponds or swimming pools because here, at long last, water serves to mirror the architect’s creation, optically multiplying it.

In this way, as an exception to the normative dry building regime, the bathroom seems but a tolerated anomaly. It is the only room in the house permitted to be really wet. As a technical concept of the modern bathroom, this “wet cell” must be taken literally – it is a room in which water is held captive. Within the domestic world, the bathroom appears to be a heterotopia. Here, water is symbolically cleansed of the negative connotations clinging to it beyond the borders of the bathroom. Indeed, the contemporary bathroom cult would seem to be proliferating in tandem to the growing concerns associated with water in its natural environment:
Water has become scarce: In the coming decades, the scarcity of drinking water in many developing countries will cost millions of lives or force their inhabitants to migrate millions of miles, which should produce a consciousness in persons of the “developed” countries to use their resources more sparingly. This “should” has yet to make its mark legible. As ever, those prototypical Californian suburban front lawns are artificially irrigated, as if the view of green grass has become yet another indispensable fact of life. But even here in “enlightened” Europe, despite ecologically correct aspirations, we should be getting stomach aches for all of the drinking water used for flushing toilets – as a rule, our houses have no separate plumbing for service water.
Water has become a commodity: For Nestlé, the leading international brand in the table water business (in essence, bottled tap water), drinking water has long been considered a commodity like any other. Because the economically rich countries of the north are also rich in water, in the future they will be the shareholders of the water monopoly. Indeed, a profitable source of capital when one considers the fact that economists are already calling water the oil of the 21st century.
It only follows economic rhyme or reason that the water-rich countries will exploit this monopoly too – after all, until now, every other country has had no qualms in putting their own natural resources such as oil and natural gas to their own advantage. The arid countries of the South, and Africa in particular, already suffering from a lack of food and from the expansion of the desert (as a result of the climate catastrophe), will undoubtedly suffer all the more from a lack of drinking water.
Water produces catastrophes: Without water, one cannot live, but with too much, one can hit rock bottom just as well. The steadily melting poles have affected an increase in the sea level as such that entire islands in the Pacific will disappear1) and a number of populated coastal regions throughout the world will be devoured by the sea. Because these coastal regions are also frequently seats of industry, the economies connected to them will be severely damaged as well. Storm floods and inundations of all strengths will become more the rule than the exception. Water, from sky or sea, is becoming a permanent threat.
Naturally, one doesn’t think about all this when one turns on the bathroom tap, and it is exactly in this repression that the contemporary cultural function of the bathroom lies. It is the space of transfiguration and transformation. Therein, it resembles the White Cube, the normative art showroom of the modern. The White Cube temporarily suspends everyday life: It lets the usual appear unusual and transforms our perception of reality. That the classic modern bathroom is just as white as the White Cube underscores its secret complicity. Certainly, it was no coincidence that Marcel Duchamp chose an urinal as a manifestation of the transformation of an everyday life object into a work of art based on the principle of the objet trouvé (Fountain, 1917). The bathroom, thus, performs a similar transformation with us. It is the place of physical twilight – the space between sleep and wakefulness. It is a lock, where the forgotten-self, teetering on the edge of the empire of dreams, is transformed into the “I” frequently encountered only by the first glance in the mirror. It is the room in which the making of oneself up is a form of exerting control over the “I”, and where we transform ourselves into the “I” we wish to produce.
To this extent the bathroom is an extremely private space. Likewise, this private space is often shared with other members of the family. Unlike the bedroom, which, as a rule, is allocated to a person or to intimate life partners, the bathroom functions like a time-shared private-public space. Which is why it can lead to conflicts between family members or flat mates, as the bathroom grants privacy like perhaps no other domestic room, albeit, enjoyed for a limited time only.
To this extent, the functionalist all-in-one bathroom plays an important role in the habits and unwritten rules co-habitation. It conditions the underlying image of individuality and collectivity of the inhabitants who share a flat. This psycho-social function has been put up for grabs, so to speak, given the spatial transformation the bathroom has been going through for some years now. When seen against the background of the wellness boom of recent years, the functionalist “bath cell” has become yet another discontinued model. Today, the bathroom is not only a space of corporeal hygiene, but of relaxation. The bathroom, hence, becomes more of a “living” room: that one can observe this phenomenon more and more in contemporary “lifestyle” living, seems only a natural consequence. The question is what new psychosocial behaviors will result from this integrated bathing. It is especially interesting that the typology of the “living bathroom” has been developed, above all, in hotel design. Architects and designers have made the hotel bathroom their laboratory of trial and error: Here, they could test out new relationships between bathing and living spaces, without having to pay too much consideration to established conventions. After all, no one lives in a hotel forever. On the contrary, the hotel is where we have come to expect deviations from our domestic norms; at home, we can still live according to those implacable rules of convention. And because, as a rule, the hotel room represents a “private” sphere, we are almost inevitably more willing to take risks in this kind of “test-drive” living than we are at home – perhaps because it is only here that we can avoid the prying questions of the inquisitive guest.
The more courageous of us all have already asked themselves whether or not one might bring these exciting bathing experiences home in order to transform their domestic living culture into something more cutting edge. Certainly, if one integrates the bathroom into the living space, not only is the space of bathing changed but also that of “living”. Actions and persons who were previously spatially separated,
must once again stand side-by-side and let negotiations begin. When, for example, in the Hotel Amerigo in Alicante, the wash basins are transplanted from the bathroom to the corridor, a direct relationship between undressing (in front of the sink) and dressing (in front of the wardrobe directly beside it) emerges. When a landscape of seating possibilities flows seamlessly into the lip of the bathtub, like in the Hotel Q in Berlin, one wonders how it effects the conversation over tea. And when the double bed is separated from the shower only by a transparent glass wall, like in the Standard Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, entirely new perspectives of seduction are made possible. Indeed, the living bathroom makes the sensual deficits of the classic “wet cell” preternaturally evident. The white tiled bathroom is as perverse as a dark room in glistening bright light. Perhaps the reason lies in our cold northern climate. Admittedly, the opulent sublimation of today’s bathroom culture is most noticeable in countries with bad weather. In Sydney, most single-family homes along the shore or at the city outskirts have outdoor bathrooms, though one should rather call them terraces sooner than rooms. Under the blue sky, one showers and hears birds chirping, while taking in the smells of the forest or the sea. Surely no one there would fathom up the idea of banishing the rituals of the bathroom to a room somewhere at the furthest corner of the house! With this in mind, those costly paradise bath fittings seem to be geared toward elevating the miserable cold of northern Europe with a warm fan of tropical happiness. Showerheads have become as big as the surface of the ceiling itself, so that we might bathe as if in the midst of the deluge of the monsoon rains; or under the gush of a waterfall; or submerged in a whirlpool to massage our overworked and cramped bodies, etc.
With this back-to-nature trend in contemporary bath design, in principle, the modern bath has returned to its historic origins in the late 18th century when domestic bathing came into vogue again, bringing two hundred years of Baroque era water-shyness to a close. At that time, physicians considered water harmful. They believed that it penetrated the pores of the body and mingled with the blood to cause
dementia and a veritable addiction to water. Instead of bathing, one rubbed the skin with perfumed towels and donned precious linen underwear. Through contact with the body, the material would magically remove the dirt from the skin, or so they thought. The more costly the underwear, the cleaner its carrier presumed himself. “Around the middle of the 17th century, the nobleman changed his shirt daily, and the wealthy city-dweller every three to seven days. Instead of buying a bathtub, one climbed the ladder of the royal court by ordering some thirty shirts. (…) One hid behind perfumed powder and coloured make-up, dousing oneself with perfume or shoving aroma sacks under the shoulders (a predecessor of deodorant) and into the folds of the clothes”.2) Baths were limited to medicinal purposes. Not until the second half of the 18th century, with the advent of the Enlightenment, the natural philosophy of Rousseau, and new scientific insights, did damp bathing culture experience its slow revival. However, in the beginning, the bath was less a room than a form of furnishing. And because there was still no running water, the bathtub was not so much installed, but rather moved from room to room, according to one’s whims or desires – bathing frequently, in fact, in the drawing-room. Accordingly, the bathtub was considered as a part of the drawingroom furnishings and not as a sanitary object. “The master cabinetmaker has truly exceeded himself in his dexterity in converting bathtubs into real furniture – complementary to the style of the times and light and easy to move – destined to become the ‘bath of the salon’ which one would take in the
company of others”.3) The actual bathtub was made out of tinned copper and embellished with paintings along the outside and was camouflaged by padded supports as an armchair or a chaise longue. Bathing was simply a form of living. This “mobile bath” forms the foundation of this early 19th century bathing culture which emerged among the bourgeoisie. For the lack of running water in private flats, one took advantage of a hot water delivery service which included a bathtub per horse and carriage. In order to squeeze through narrow staircases, collapsible bathtubs were set up in the corridor and filled with pre-heated water in buckets. The corridor, in fact, the most public room of any upper-middle-class dwelling, was temporarily morphed into the most private. In contrast to the late modern bathroom, bathing was not associated with a sanitary atmosphere, but had been completely absorbed into the domestic ambiance of living. This remained true as well when apartments in European metropolises built in the 2nd half of the 19th century were equipped with running water. At this time, the “English bath” was developed, but today we would hardly recognize it as a bathroom, per se, because all sanitary objects were camouflaged
as part of the domestic furnishings: indeed, the bathtub consisted of double-walled porcelain lined with nothing less than mahogany. With its integrated shower cubicle, this bathtub was sooner fit to be a confessional in which to lie down, but by the turn of the century, it had become all the rage amongst fine society. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that one began to let the functionality of a bathroom shine through. The current trend in the “living bathroom” seems to reflect this historic development like a mirror to the past. A retro-science fiction, more and more our contemporary bathroom designers are “rediscovering” the bath before the invention of the bathroom: I bathe, therefore I live.