Bathrooms built for indulgence
BY Thomas Wagner | Feb 27, 2013

Welcome to the thermotope! Here we can be the human beings we really are, without having to parade ourselves on that stage that is the gym or the sauna; it is here that we can finally feel comfortable in our own skin. Here, the artificial cloud of warmth that embraces us, soaking into every pore, allows us to just forget the physical and social frostiness that besets us on a daily basis outside in the big, wide world. Here we are truly in a world of our own, here we are promised relaxation, even healing. Here we have succeeded in creating an insulating layer between those outside mechanisms of coldness and our own inner lives, so threatened by eternal frostbite today.

“Humans,” says Peter Sloterdijk, philosopher and theorist on the realm of indulgence that is modern day society, “are not at one with themselves in a particular country but in comfort.” And given that the global wellness industry has figured out precisely how to lure its prey, it’s no wonder we firmly believe that by purchasing their products we also gain an “indulgence edge”. While the old spa resorts are fast becoming mere scenes of a distant past, the sanitary industry has recognized that, especially in the bathroom, it is now about so much more than cleansing rituals.

The desire for the perfect temperate zone

When coining the term “thermotope” Sloterdijk thus likewise set out to describe the realm in which the advantages of everyday magic actually become tangible. In the 21st century, albeit itself still in its infancy, anyone who addresses the themes of heating and air-conditioning as a whole also expresses a desire to go beyond warm water, central heating, air-conditioning, digital household automation and high-efficiency energy management systems in every area of the house and home. For what they are by implication really longing for, and it’s a yearning that reaches down deep into our very souls, is a life in a new temperate zone. “In our universe,” notes Alexander Kluge, “it is often either too hot or too cold for warm-blooded creatures (and for saurians, fish and snakes alike). The existence of places that are capable of supporting life, that boast the right climatic conditions is a rare coincidence in this universe.” In more developed nations here on earth in the first instance the bathroom is such a place.

The bathroom as magical axis

This magical axis of warmth around which our existence revolves has now been transplanted directly into our homes – in the form of the bathroom, which has in recent decades evolved into an all-round feel-good center. In the bathroom, wild, unruly mother nature morphs into her alternate, caring counterpart: there are showers that wrap our neglected skin in warm summer’s rain; grand, sweeping bathtubs, filled with warm bubbling water as revitalizing as it is effervescent; underfloor heating; materials that are exquisite to the touch; warm colors; light that flatters every line and contour of the body; brightly lit mirrors; even fitness equipment; not to forget all manner of fragrances and aromas – all of which wrap us snug in an all-round sense of happiness and wellbeing.

The only thing comparable to this self-staged sphere of comfort would be the beloved kitchen hearth, which as the heart of the home not only has a certain sentimental presence but also the additional advantage of providing heat. Although admittedly in more primitive times the source, an open fire, did have to be watched with a keen eye. It’s a parallel evinced by the revival of the fireplace as a home accessory along with its enthralling display of dancing flames even if it first and foremost serves to warm our souls rather than our bodies and accomplishes the task even better than do our actual homes. As every marketing specialist knows, a magical feeling is always a good seller.

Heat pumps replace open hearths

Having said that, in today’s market questions of energy and consumption have replaced the consumerist desire for a product that could wow with pyrotechnic displays. Less energy, less water, there’s no other way around it. As a result, ongoing debates in the design world relating to the bathroom as an area of comfort no longer revolve around proto-organic or rectangular-shaped fittings made of porcelain, filigree mosaics and “experience showers”, in which we cleanse our stressed-out egos of the impositions of everyday life. Today designs have to offer that added extra: a permanent feeling of wellbeing.

The effective management of experience

In order to find the right responses, they have been pretty busy in the bathroom sector over the past few years, working on how to optimize the space in terms of fittings, energy efficiency, general eco-friendliness and not least aesthetics. That said, the very next development is closing on us fast: extensive digitalization, that is, the control of technology and the management of experience. Engineers and designers are now collaborating closely on finding the solutions. After all, in those countries that are now filling up with these wellness zones it is no longer a simple matter of ensuring the provision of warmth or hot water. It is about doing everything that is already being done, but doing it better: better heating systems for the wintertime and better cooling systems for the summer, providing hot water more efficiently and ensuring less of it is required – and at the same time taking the fruits of these labors and creating an augmented, meaning more intense experience. In this case, augmented translates into more efficient, more economical, and more eco-friendly. But one mustn’t forget the products also have to be more appealing, more comforting and more meaningful.
A money and energy-saving wonder that doesn’t compromise in any way on comfort and is furthermore designed in such a way that we can actually feel the added goodness in our tired-out bones; in a world shaped by rising energy prices and environmental disasters, this is more than the stuff of the mechanics, designers and architects’ dreams, it is the reality of their work.

An idyll of the mind

On this basis, these household wellness zones, oases that have very little in common with that which we once called the bathroom, have undergone admittedly somewhat gradual enhancements, in particular when it comes to our perception of the space. The minds of planners and consumers have transformed a bare space created for the necessary chore of cleansing our bodies into an elementary part of the home, one which is ideally accessible directly from the bedroom and in which personal hygiene, wellness and fitness all blend into the feel-good factor.
An island radiating warmth in the midst of the cold sea of society, the bathroom is an artificial paradise full of pleasurable sensations. It is not without reason that we say we have a “cold” when we are feeling under the weather. Furthermore, the bathroom, that private and familiar inner sanctum, is one place where we indeed can control the rising water levels; we are the ones who turn the faucet on and off, such that we can simply give ourselves up to the otherwise unruly element without a second thought as here it has been domesticated for us. So what we today call the bathroom is in fact an idyll of the mind, where we are embraced by the warm arms of a system which brings us to believe that at least for a while we have returned to the security and warmth of our mother’s womb, whence we were so forcibly ejected at birth.

The cold vs. warm principle

Cold and warmth are primitive variables. Whether we feel freezing cold or cozy and warm is not, as each and every one of us has found out for themselves, solely dependent on the kind of temperature we measure in Fahrenheit. The outside world remains cold to us. “Key characteristics, without which humanity would never have survived, date back to the Stone Age. Such as, for example, the distinction between hot and cold, which so imperative for warm-blooded creatures: The basis of all FEELINGS. To this extent, one could say that we humans hail from the cold itself,” writes Alexander Kluge in a chapter of his latest book entitled “He who dares topple Cold from its steed”.
Bringing warmth to our bodies and hearts, in a physical just as much as a social sense, can thus be construed as one of humanity’s grand projects. If we are to believe Joseph Beuys, in whose art warmth also plays pivotal role as a basic element for evolution, then we are forced to develop a kind of thermal creativity if we are not to freeze in the icy wind that whips through our society in the form of complete indifference. But a bathroom and a heat pump aren’t enough, what we really need is a “honey pump”, something that could fill our lives with both warmth and sweetness.