Our earliest and most vivid memories of joy can be watery ones: splashing in a wading pool as a toddler, taking a bath before bedtime, revelling in the surf with hundreds of others on a hot summer afternoon. But the emotions associated with water go back further than childhood: They’re primeval stirrings. They remind us that bathing has been an aquatic occupation of ours for thousands of years.
The Architecture of Bathing, by the architect and University of Waterloo professor Christie Pearson, surveys famous, beautiful, and idiosyncratic balneal buildings, along with such objects as tubs and pools that are the props for ablution. Pearson’s bathing summary is comprehensive, both historically and geographically. It includes how we augment nature with piers, docks, and promenades, and how we build elaborate spas that are somewhat antithetical to the simple pleasures of plunging into hot water that springs magically from the ground and of wallowing in sulphuric-smelling mud. Bathing can be athletic, in the gargantuan swimming pools of the Olympics, for instance. Bathing can be therapeutic, with sensory deprivation tanks and mysterious waters that are reputed to cure disease. Bathing can be sacred, highly ritualized, and institutionalized with temples, shrines, and monuments adjacent to or completely enveloping a water source. Bathing can also be profane, especially when it doesn’t have much to do with getting clean, like those dips at the Continental Baths in New York (better known to the non‑gay crowd as the place that launched Bette Midler’s career).
Bathing structures correspond with how we bathe. In Turkey: “You lie prone on a heated platform, then sit on a bench in a personalized niche with a basin collecting water, which you then throw over yourself.” In Japan: “You squat to collect the water, douse and scrub yourselves, then enter a deep tub to soak sitting with knees bent up.” In Finland: “You sit on tiered benches to sweat, then jump into the lake to rinse and cool off.” Things are more basic in India: “You walk into the river, submerge yourself three times, then walk back out.” Pearson includes a photograph of the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion, the Toronto landmark built in 1922, but the Canadian way of bathing is likely typified by another photograph in the book: a rustic cedar tub heated with a wood-burning stove, set in pristine natural landscape.
Before we mechanized bathing, we relied on nature to provide lavation. When we recreate the waterfall, cloudburst, tranquil pond, or bubbling brook with stainless steel shower heads and porcelain tubs, we attempt to bring their natural poetry into our homes and institutions. This mythic quality relates to even the most inadvertent of bathing situations. Consider how the humble fire hydrant, wrenched open during a heat wave so that urbanites can cool down, is transformed, momentarily, into Old Faithful, spurting from the steaming pavement.
Fountains offer examples of unexpected bathing opportunities, too. The eighteenth-century Trevi Fountain in Rome is a grand public art installation and, as immortalized in Federico Fellini’s 1960 La dolce vita, a good place to make a splash. In the film, the character played by the voluptuous Anita Ekberg jumps into the baroque icon. She is a siren amid the marble gods taming the waters, becoming a figure of unbridled sexuality. The Trevi Fountain is quite different than Keller Fountain, a cascading park that the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin created in the late 1960s, in downtown Portland, Oregon. Rather than representing hedonistic excess, it embodies Halprin’s belief that civic space should be permissive and inclusive; frolicking here symbolizes freedom for all. Composed of monumental abstract shapes, with few barriers to impede access, the artificial falls evoke the mountains and rushing rivers of the region.
Bathing is often an egalitarian experience. Recall the shock as a child when you saw people in their bathing suits — people you had never seen undressed were now almost naked. “We enter the public pool, the sauna, or the beach with a heightened awareness of our own bodies and those of others,” Pearson writes. “Bathing environments emphasize tactility and body awareness, literally bringing us closer to materials and bodies than we are in other spaces.” The prim schoolteacher, the stern police officer, and the next-door neighbour all uncovered. It was even more confusing because, suddenly, these predictable people were unrecognizably happy and liberated. They were unlike their day-to-day selves, and so much more like you.
Not unexpectedly, in a history of bathing, the ancient Romans are prominent:
The Romans’ bath buildings are some of their most innovative and exciting, not bound by traditional forms required by most other building types. Large or small, they tended to be at the forefront of structural experimentation and daring. The great imperial thermae of Trajan, Nero, Diocletian, and Constantine in Rome were colossal constructions, able to accommodate thousands of people at a time.
Architecturally, these structures became the prototypes “for the later vaulted, domed civic and sacred buildings we are familiar with.” Next time you are intimidated by an august bank or government office whose neoclassical edifice is meant to impress, just imagine the space as a bath, with the officious staff naked.
In Rome, communal bathing was essential for social cohesion. People of all classes went to the baths to get clean and to chat. Pleasure was not yet connected with sin. “We commonly exemplify the decadence and decline associated with the Roman Empire with the baths,” Pearson writes. “Seeking pleasure for its own sake was gradually demonized during the rise of Christianity, and this continues to taint bathing culture.” Water may be good for baptism but not for mass cleansing, and certainly not to give a Christian a sensual experience enjoyed in public. But even in non-Christian cultures where communal bathing was once deeply embedded, the practice is on the decline. In Japan, for example, young people no longer value the traditional bathhouse experience. It’s what their grandparents did.
Bathing used to liberate. Student trips to Europe were shocking for those of us who witnessed families blithely changing into their swimsuits on the beach — right out in the open — not to mention the topless women and the men in Speedos that only gay guys would attempt in North America. Even WASP families, who were uptight in town, used to consider skinny-dipping a must in cottage country. Boathouses had steps into the water for the women to go in and out discreetly, while men were expected to run naked off the dock. But somewhere along the line, swimming, showering, and bathing all became a bit prudish. “If the communal bath is under threat worldwide,” Pearson writes, “I want us to stay a while where it still can be found: a fragment of a utopia, a lively glimmer of an alternative.”