The architecture of bathing

Sento

Sento. Woodblock print by Kylie Budge.

When you think about public architecture chances are you will think of outdoor parks and spaces, monuments and perhaps even landscape architecture. But would you think about the humble bathroom? Perhaps not. And yet through large periods of history in particular cultures architecture was intimately (pardon the pun) connected to baths and the act of bathing.

The Romans built spectacular baths and are particularly known for this architectural feature. In his book, Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, Henri Lefebvre (who wrote the manuscript in 1973 but the book was only recently published in 2014 after being discovered in a private archive) talks of the social role of the Roman bathhouse. According to Henri, a sociologist and philosopher with a deep interest in the architecture of everyday life, the Romans were especially good at connecting individuals to the city so there was a strong emphasis on public architecture. The design of the Roman Baths (which you can see today in the English city of Bath) was, Henri claims, focussed on the cultivation of body and mind. I was particularly struck by his way of thinking about architecture as a social force and ‘a mode of imagination’ (as described by Lukasz Stanek in the introduction to his book). His point being that architecture is inherently about people and space, and their interaction and use of it.

All this talk of the social architecture of bathrooms and bathing made me think of Japan. And Korea. But especially Japan as I used many, many public baths (known as sento – for everyday use – and onsen – for fancier style bathing associated with resorts and holiday spots with hot springs) while I lived there. I did this because my crumbling post WW2 era apartment in Kyoto did not have its own bathroom. It was built during a time when almost everyone in Japan used the public baths (sento) and particularly after the war when most houses and apartments did not have private bathrooms due to resources being scarce. So within my neighbourhood I had the choice of three different sento – all within about 500 metres of my front door. Each a little different in the interior décor and overall ambience, but all, without a doubt, very social places to spend time. Even for me, as a westerner.

During my seven years of sento and onsen visits I observed an incredible culture of public architecture in use. Each afternoon and evening many generations from the tiniest of babies to the oldest of the elderly bathed together. But the way the Japanese (and other cultures who have a culture of communal bathing in purpose built structures) embrace the bathhouse is far more than functional. Although everyone delights in a hot tub soak (or the herbal bath, the Jacuzzi, the electric bath!, or the cold tub) with the aim to cleanse, there is a regular social gathering that happens as an integral part of the experience. Neighbours, friends and family catch up with each other. News is shared. Busy women wind down after feeding their families with some ‘private’ time out. Babies are passed around so that a new mother has time to wash and soak without stressing. Everyone relaxes. But it’s done together, not privately. It is inherently social place with a strongly enforced etiquette.

In Melbourne, we have a very simplified version of this available through the Japanese Bathhouse in Collingwood. While it is certainly not the same experience as a sento or onsen in Japan (for example, there is only have one tub for soaking), it is designed in broadly the same way and so a visitor can experience a social form of bathing. Sadly, I don’t know of an option in Sydney now that the fabulous Korean baths that once existed in Kings Cross have closed. But on another level, the ocean baths dotted up and down the New South Wales coast offer a different experience (the baths are for swimming not for bathing as cleansing), but a social one nevertheless.

What other forms of everyday life would benefit from this kind of design? My mind wanders to the kitchen. How might this work? What could our meal times look and feel like if there was a social architecture in place that helped to connect busy, (and sometimes isolated) people? And the garden. Wonderful community garden initiatives are popping up all over the place, including at the top of city residential buildings. People love these kinds of places. Once they encounter community gardens people actively nurture and protect them.

How can design thinking help us to expand this kind of activity, particularly in our cities?

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