Observations on the way to the bathroom - part 2
by Thomas Wagner
Mar 8, 2009

Unfortunately, we do not have the space here to trace all the twists and turns of the entire path to the modern, standardized bathroom of the 20th century, as Siegfried Giedion described it. One thing comes clearly to the fore, however, and points ahead to our present: the fact that the development of the bathroom “with running water and its standard fittings of the bathtub, faucet and toilet is the result of a long, undecided to and fro”. In the 1890s, it was still completely unclear which kind of bathing would prevail in the Western industrial nations. People tenaciously tried “to concentrate hot air or steam baths in combination with massage and exercise in public facilities instead of the primitive bathroom associated with the apartment.”

And even in the early 1880s, the shower was to “replace the bathtub both in public baths and in the private home.”When he wrote his cultural historical study on mechanization as an anonymous history in the mid-20th century, Giedion could not have imagined that only half a century later, with the emergence of wellness and water parks, the opportunity would arise to change the bathroom once again as a standardized private cleansing unit and to expand its functions. Just as unpredictable was that a culture of regeneration which, as originally in Islam, involves the entire body, would again come to the aid of the private bath in public spas and wellness centers, such as the baths in Vals built by Peter Zumthor, beyond medicinal spas. Although these efforts were not sufficient to attain the mental regeneration achieved by the Greeks, the idea of total regeneration seemed to have revived the extinguished interest in other cultural forms of bathing, from the steam bath to Ayurvedic massage.

Initially, the advancing standardization of the bathroom in the 20th century not only put paid to the integration of different historical and cultural forms of bathing, but also the way “back to nature” – and linked this to luxurious series of rooms instead of just to one place of purification. “The bathroom”, according to Giedion, “quickly finds its standard form, especially in the country that was most concerned with the democratization of comfort, America. It was the age of complete mechanization. All at once the two foci of mechanization, the bathroom and kitchen, dominated building layout virtually tyrannically. Architects made economic considerations, such as reducing the installation costs by positioning the kitchen, bathroom and toilet as close as possible to one another, fixed elements in the free design of the building, sometimes more than they actually wanted.” Thus a nomadic bath became a fixed one in its own room.

And especially in England, at this time the dominant taste of the day, which penetrated all areas, reached the bathroom too, with, according to Giedion, “occasionally bizarre results”: “The bathtub, faucet and toilet were considered furniture which should express the inhabitant’s personal taste.” The American style bathroom, in contrast, originated in the hotel, where it was considered an annex to the bedroom. A combination of the two has prevailed to this day.Will another “renaturalization” now follow the disintegration of traditional bathroom types and their advancing mechanization? And, considering the current, ever bigger and ever more extravagantly furnished bathing temples, will this be accompanied by a reculturalization, even if hybrid and with multiple perspectives? Will the 21st-century bathroom be an extended living-sleeping area, a place of regeneration, filled with elements from different cultures and ages?

Collapsible Shower with water tank, 1832 Prefabricated bathroom in two pieces, Buckminister Fuller, 1938
Prefabricated bathroom, vertical wall panel, 1931
Prefabricated bathroom, disjointed in two pieces,1934
The assembled bathroom, 1934