A Story of Both Grand and Mean Feats

Enter the smallest room of the house and you are in a private space where there is no provision for  anyone other than you. It may be the only room in the house where you will ever be truly alone. Yet reach for the flush and you are instantly connected with a vast technological and ideological infrastructure: a complex and conflict scarred world of bathroom history and evolution. You are – if at all – only subconsciously aware of a subterranean world of pipes, pumps and treatment plants. The very act of flushing however – closing the lid and walking away – symbolises our extreme reluctance to examine this subject more closely. And when we turn on the tap to fill a glass a moment later do we wonder at the skill of the treatment plant in this miraculous act of technological transubstantiation? Probably not. Yet this very examination has become more pressing particularly in view of our need to adopt more sustainable practices. Ironically just as the Anglo-American sanitation model is now universally accepted as the optimum in both social and technological achievement, it is already outdated.

For all our collective coyness with regard to attitudes to this small room and the intimate daily practices associated with it, this humblest of rooms – as Barbara Penner demonstrates – has become an international symbol of key modern values, such as cleanliness, order and progress. The modern bathroom model, it’s technologies and customs have been exported globally through empire, fairs and tourism. The conflicts this process has caused is explored by Penner, who also discusses more environmentally-friendly and low-tech alternatives that are set to  become ever more relevant in our environmentally conscious age.

Barbara Penner’s ‘Bathroom’ is as engaging and intelligent a survey of bathroom history and evolution as it is entertaining. With advocates like Penner, the bathroom may have a decent chance of escaping the embarrassment and indifference from which it often suffers as a respectable subject of study and design – let alone the real revolution that it now so badly needs. It’s therefore with considerable justification that Penner asks ‘Have we ever been modern’ with regard to the design our our bathrooms? But indifference, embarrassment and coyness notwithstanding, when we have had to confront change in the past it has sometimes been – like the raising of the entire city of Chicago on jackscrews in the 1850s – truly heroic.

Barbara Penner talks to GDC Interiors Journal about bathroom history and its evolution and introduces her new book ‘Bathroom’…

Bathroom History

In the summer of 2009, I went on a pilgrimage. My destination: the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, celebrated for its artist-designed washrooms. The institution itself has a long history of bringing together art and plumbing through its Arts/Industry programme, which offers artists the opportunity to produce work in the company’s pottery (one of the world’s largest), iron and brass foundries and enamel workshop. In this sense, the Kohler washrooms can be seen as the consummation of the company’s interest in uniting the most basic of human needs – the need to urinate and defecate – with the most elevated of our faculties – the ability to appreciate beauty.

The coordinator of the Arts/Industry programme, Mike Ogilvie, offered me a tour. The washrooms were a revelation. One highlight was Merrill Mason’s women’s room, Emptying and Filling. In a series of marble niches Mason had installed an array of delicate objects – gloves, lipsticks and combs – all cast in iron, capturing perfectly the tensions of the female toilette and the discipline required to achieve beauty. Mike then guarded the door as I inspected the men’s rooms, though the precaution was probably not necessary (at the Center, women and men routinely trespass into each other’s washrooms to view the art). Matt Nolen’s The Social History of Architecture was an art historical tour de force: each fixture, representing a particular period in history, playfully riffed on the idea of the toilet as a ‘seat of power’. But it was in Ann Agee’s Sheboygan Men’s Room that I experienced my ‘eureka’ moment, when different ideas for my book ‘Bathroom’ all coalesced.

bathroom history and evolution ann agee

Ann Agee, Sheboygan Men’s Room, J M Kohler Arts Center, Wisconsin, 1999. Detail featuring the blue-on-white tile work.

On entering Sheboygan Men’s Room my first impression was of a rather bijou space, filled with details that evoked times past: delicate hand-painted, blue-and-white tiles showing picturesque views. Initially taken in by the prettiness of it all, I became aware only gradually that the space was anything but an exercise in nostalgia. As I contemplated an image of what at first glance seemed to be a quiet pond, the penny finally dropped: the ‘pond’ was actually a tank, part of the city’s water treatment works. Looking closer, I realized that all of the Men’s Room vignettes depict Sheboygan’s water system in action. And, in case one misses the point, a diagram of the system is located on the wall above the paper towel dispenser, functioning as a key to the whole.

Quite apart from their artfulness, Agee’s images inspired me because they portray things that we regularly use or experience in a fragmented and remote way – a lake, a swimming pool, a car wash, a water gun, a sprinkler, a treatment plant – and makes their interconnectedness clear. By organizing these episodes into a single space and into a single decorative scheme, the vignettes replicate the way in which water and sanitation infrastructure enables and links disparate moments in our daily lives, both mundane and pleasurable, small and grand. Standing in Men’s Room we understand that we are implicated too: even our most basic actions – flushing the toilet, turning on a tap – makes us a part of the scenes on the walls.

In the way that it links Sheboygan’s water system to the Arts Center’s washroom and situates users within it, Agee’s work captures in images what I hope to convey in my book. Like Agee, I do not intend to consider the bathroom as a discrete and enclosed site. I want to make sense of how the bathroom meets the world outside, how it moves between different sites, scales and conditions, and how it hooks the human body up to technology, individuals to infrastructure and private to public realms. In so doing I aim to break down what is sometimes referred to as the ‘disconnect’ between the architecture of the water system and reality of its use to allow for a more holistic and situated understanding of this humble yet complex space.

Small Rooms, Big Systems

While the task of connection seems easy enough on paper, it goes against deeply ingrained habits and conventions, not to mention the design of the water system itself. For the ‘disconnect’ is actually plumbed into the developed world’s water networks, which are created to render not only the user but also the impact of use invisible. They are literally ‘flush and forget’, removing the sight and the smell of our waste. The vast majority of people take it for granted that treated, potable hot and cold water will be on tap 24 hours a day and that waste can be flushed speedily away. Our everyday routines, our standards of hygiene and our understanding of civility are all constructed around these ordinary facts. We tend to assume that access to water and its unfettered use is our right and do not give much thought to what enables it.

This feeling of disjunction is further emphasized by our tendency to treat the bathroom as private, even as the most private space in the house, where we are able to indulge in the most personal of all our routines. We refer to the bathroom as ‘the smallest room’ to reflect both its small scale and its direct relationship to our bodies; in short, we value it precisely because it is so good at shutting the world out. Yet, as the interconnected episodes in Men’s Room remind us, the ‘smallest room’ depends on and is plugged into the vast infrastructural network beyond. The bathroom thus is a hinge between private and public realms, the place where bodies, technologies, domestic interiors and urban systems most intimately interact.

In order to understand these interactions, we first need to counteract the system’s plumbed-in invisibility, its taken-for-grantedness. But how do we move our understanding outwards from the smallest room to the big system on which it depends? The difference in scale between these worlds is immense. Aesthetically, too, they are miles apart: the decorative surface of the bathroom bears little relation to the industrial architecture of the system – dams, reservoirs, water towers, sewers, pumping stations and treatment plants – mostly located on the peripheries of cities. As Agee’s installation highlights so cleverly, decoration works against connecting the bathroom to infrastructure, precisely because the exoticism and prettiness of its detailing distract from the utilitarian world beneath.

Even when we turn to more conventional renderings of bathrooms, for instance in trade catalogues, we find fixtures represented in perspective views as discrete objects, free of context or the reality of use. The one exception is the sanitary section, in which we see a building sliced through vertically, walls and all, to reveal its network of pipes and drains. This form of representation emerged in the nineteenth century as a way of dealing with the new complexity of infrastructural systems. As pipes proliferated, houses were increasingly likened either to machines, designed to regulate the flow of services, or to living organisms. The idea of the house as a biological organism in particular has persisted into the modern era: take the industrial designer Bill Stumpf’s ‘Metabolic House’ (1989), where the home breathes, eats and excretes, taking in oxygen, food and water and expelling it again.

bathroom history and evolution plunkett

Harriet Plunkett, ‘Woman’s Sphere’, in Women, Plumbers and Doctors (1885)

The metabolic metaphor has not only been used to make sense of the home: since the nineteenth century it has also been deployed to conceptualize the layers of the modern city, as so many arteries, veins and organs. The film director Alfred Hitchcock drew on this long-standing tradition when he revealed to François Truffaut his desire to make a film about a day in the life of a city, which would focus on food – its arrival, distribution, sale, purchase, preparation and consumption – and would end by following the waste into the sewers and out into the sea. ‘So there’s a cycle,’ he explained, ‘beginning with the gleaming fresh vegetables and ending with the mess that’s poured into the sewer.’ Like many others, Hitchcock believed that this ongoing cycle of in-flows and out-flows embodied the entire story of modernity.

The metabolic view rightly underscores the fact that most modern infrastructural improvements share one critical goal: improved circulation. Above all else, capitalism and industrialization demand efficient circulation to enable the free movement of goods and people; the primary role of local government is to regulate the movement of water, goods, traffic, people and waste. As part of this remit, from the mid-nineteenth century onward, authorities intervened more actively in city workings to provide public services such as paving and street lighting and, crucially, water and sewerage systems. Britain was at the forefront of the move to pass public health legislation to ensure that private homes and businesses were properly connected to these centralized systems. It is at this moment that the story of the modern bathroom truly begins.

But the metabolic view can only take us so far in conceptualizing modern infrastructure. Its main limitation is that it tends to treat infrastructural systems as a logical and natural response to a host of functional requirements rather than to more contingent and historically specific factors. By contrast, I maintain in my book that the growth of these systems is never simply driven by functional needs or technologies, but that larger political and social processes and attitudes always play a role too. Society cannot be separated from technology; instead, society and technology are bound together in overlapping and intertwined networks that mutually shape each other and which produce new hybrids of features, fixtures and spaces in their turn.

click on the page numbers below to navigate through the article

Like what you've read? Click to become a member and get new articles straight to your inbox
Interiors - Design - Architecture - Art - Travel - Lifestyle
The latest and greatest trends, interviews, inspirations and more
Find it all on the GDC interiors Journal

back to top button

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share This Story