Bathing / Banya
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For most of the history of our species, in most parts of the world, bathing has been a collective act. In ancient Asia, the practice was a religious ritual believed to have medical benefits related to the purification of the soul and body. For the Greeks, the baths were associated with self-expression, song, dance and sport, while in Rome they served as community centres, places to eat, exercise, read and debate politics.
But communal bathing is rare in the modern world. While there are places where it remains an important part of social life – in Japan, Sweden and Turkey, for example – for those living in major cities, particularly in the Anglosphere, the practice is virtually extinct. The vast majority of people in London, New York and Sydney have become used to washing alone, at home, in plexi-glass containers – showering as a functional action, to clean one’s own private body in the fastest and most efficient way possible.
The eclipse of communal bathing is one symptom of a wider global transformation, away from small ritualistic societies to vast urban metropolises populated by loose networks of private individuals. This movement has been accompanied by extraordinary benefits, such as the mass availability and movement of services and commodities, but it has also contributed to rampant loneliness, apathy and the emergence of new psychological phenomena, from depression to panic and social anxiety disorders. ‘Urban alienation’, a term much-used by sociologists at the start of the 20th century, has become a cliché for describing today’s world.
It is difficult to imagine a more powerful counter-image to the dominant picture of modernity than the archetypal bathhouse. Of course, these spaces vary greatly. The Japanese sento, with its strict rules and fastidious emphasis on hygiene, could hardly be more different from the infamously squalid wash houses of Victorian Britain. Hungary’s vast fürdő, some of which spread over several floors, provide a different emotional experience to the intensity of the lakȟóta sweat-lodge of Native America. What links all these examples, however, is the role such spaces have in bringing together people who might otherwise remain separate, and placing them in a situation of direct physical contact. It is this aspect of proximity that remains significant today.
It’s churlish to simply disregard the public bath as an object of classical nostalgia. Communal bathing is a near-universal trait among our species and has a meaning that extends far beyond personal hygiene. There are pragmatic reasons to re-invent the practice, to be sure, but its anthropological diversity suggests that there might be a more fundamental need for this ancient and deeply human art.
During the mid-to-late 19th century, public health and sanitation in New York City had become a growing concern. By this time, the city’s burgeoning population had reached 1.4 million, leaving many residents without access to adequate sanitation facilities like toilets and bathrooms. In fact, at one point, there was roughly one bathtub for every 79 families in the Lower East Side, according to one 1896 survey. Commercial bathhouses were available throughout the city, but were out of reach for New York’s low income families, especially immigrants who lived in overcrowded tenements that facilitated the spread of diseases like cholera and typhoid.
To help combat the city’s public health problem, public bathhouses were constructed around New York City. The first one opened on Mott Street in 1851. However, it wasn’t until 1901 that the first year-round public bathhouse opened on Rivington Street, years after the New York Senate passed a law in April 1895 requiring the construction of free public baths in cities of 50,000 people or more. Prior to this, temporary floating baths along the river served this need, but pollution soon made them unusable.
Eventually, the rise of plumbing did away with the public bathhouse altogether, although their successors—public pools—continue to play important roles in the city. The idea of a public bath is unfamiliar today, but at the time it represented an ambitious social experiment. Though they’ve been converted into rec centers, you can still spot a few of the iconic buildings in the city today—a reminder that even the way we bathe is laden with meaning.
On the other side of the world, The Central Institute of Labor in Moscow was founded with Lenin’s and Trotsky’s support in 1921 as means of reforming and streamlining mechanized production. As Boris Groys notes, Soviet ideology tried to organize the entire society according to a pseudo-mechanized model; art and architecture fit into this picture, and aesthetic programs corresponded to social, ideological, and bureaucratic agendas. The main object of mechanized aesthetic production was to articulate the formal logic and ethos of the machine. It was not only a tool, but a model for organizing all of existence. This vision of the totality of the world as a machine, the totalitarian and even cosmological apprehension of mechanization, is characteristically Soviet. It developed as part of the socialist program for thoroughly reconstructing politics, aesthetics, and everyday life.
The Russian urban bathhouse, or banya is a microcosm that reflects the relationship between the state and the citizen on an intimate scale, in the realm of the senses. What is the key to the ritual transformation of the citizen in the banya, and what is at the center of this experience? Where does the transformative power of the banya reside?
The most fantastic example of architecture dedicated to the initiation into the industrial society through care of the self is the round banya. The round banya, like other banyas, was a symbolic microcosm of hygiene, an aesthetic milieu that reflected power relationships and articulated choreographies of hygiene, but it was also formally articulated as a microcosm, and resembled the general scheme of the Panopticon. Round banyas were worlds in miniature, and by using them the citizen could experience the logic of the world as machine; within the round banya, the citizen’s participation in the world, along with the citizen’s Communist self, were the subject of nascent industrialization. This was not only a visceral but also a mystical experience.
The first round banya appeared in 1927, before the First Five-Year plan. Its author was Alexander Nikol’sky, and it was an unrealized project. The plan was in the shape of the world. It had a gigantic glass dome, akin to Byzantine churches, in which the dome represented the heavens. These heavens, however, were mechanically operated: a mechanism that could open and close them, depending on the weather. Nikol’sky’s round banya is deliberately isolated from its surroundings. The building is not level with the ground. Dressing, showering, and steaming facilities are buried two meters below ground level, and the solarium on the roof is two meters above, connected to the ground only by narrow ramps. Detached from its surroundings, Nikol’sky’s round banya becomes an isolated ritual territory of collective bodily care.
The precedent for looking at the public bath as a type of machine was set by the classic treatise on mechanization and modern life, Sigfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command of 1948. The last chapter of this book is about the mechanization of the bath, and it reflects the author’s ambivalence toward mechanization in the aftermath of World War II. Giedion enthusiastically compiles images of all kinds of modern bathing contraptions, appearing to celebrate, in his pictorial material, the quirks of the modern age. But the images are in discord with the text, which laments the loss of ‘total regeneration’ bathing, performed in ancient steam baths and thermae. It is, according to the text, now replaced by the efficient ‘ablution’ brought about by modern technology. Giedion laments the loss of a culture of ‘non-doing’ and a ‘dignified rhythm of life’, which are replaced by a culture in which everything, including the care of the flesh, is purposeful and streamlined. Modernity is fascinating, but it comes with a loss.
If Giedion is considered bath-as-care, Bernard Rudofsky is bath-as-pleasure. Born in 1908 in Moravia, Rudofsky was at various times an architect, a photographer, a painter, an exhibition organizer and designer, an author and book designer, and a fashion designer. But he wasn’t dabbling, or at least he wasn’t only dabbling — these professions were all of a piece, all fitting into his vision of a human life closely integrated with its environment.
Rudofsky looks back to Roman baths, but where his forerunners wanted the bath to grow to gleaming new (or anciently thermaetic) heights, Rudofsky wanted to keep it smaller and local, more on the level of the neighborhood bath than the thermae. Rudofsky was along similar lines a little suspicious of cleanliness — not of being clean itself but of the hegemonic tendency of the concept, the obsessions it generates, the metaphorical uses it serves, the way it washes out ideas adjacent to it. Our problem, he thought, was that nowadays we bathe for washing only. But bathing for washing can’t even be called bathing. It’s not what bathing is for, not even its lowest and basest form, only an adjunct to it. We have, he writes, a “common but mistaken belief that we bathe.”Alas, “we only wash,” and aren’t even aware of what we’re missing.
“We neither ask nor expect from the bath benefits of a sensual nature; the bathroom is a purely mechanical arrangement. In its present form — almost all of its contraptions had to be rediscovered or reinvented — it is no more than the manufacturer’s idea of a bath. The motions we call bathing are mere ablutions which, formerly, preceded the bath.”
Thus, he concludes, “The place where the ablutions are performed does not deserve to be called a bathroom.” The bath is not for washing: This is again and again the call of the modern-day bath critic. What is the bath for then? For Rudofsky it’s for pleasure, for “nervous stimulation,” to use his mid-century language. And since we no longer bathe, we have to seek stimulation elsewhere. Nowadays, he writes, “we prefer stimulation through spirits — perhaps because this saves us the bother of taking off our clothes.”
This life-vision more and more took the form of a great concern with the increasing mechanization of human life, particularly in America, where Rudofsky lived most of his life after leaving Vienna. “What we need,” he wrote, “is not a new technology but a new way of living.”
In 1976 the young architect Leonard Koren started WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, an avant-garde mag that was both “a parody of all enthusiasm taken a bit too far” and genuinely devoted to bathing. In it the intense focus of Rudofsky and Giedion was translated and laced into New Age California humor and positive vibes; just as in the Sixties Adorno and the Frankfurt School’s thinking in the 1960s blended into a form of popular radicalism, so the bath thinking became popular and gained a particularly American valence.
WET promoted a four-teneted philosophy of bathing:
- Water, steam, air, and mud — and the energy to heat them — are precious resources to be cherished and conserved.
- Cleanliness is next to impossible (but keep trying anyway).
- Nakedness is almost always an excellent idea.
- In addition to all its other charms, bathing is an accommodating metaphor.
Koren discovered bathing as his subject while looking for “less self-conscious, more humane approaches to place-making. “This led me to small, intimate environments: the kinds of places you go to feel safe and secure, the kinds of places that induce you to ‘let go’ and ‘be yourself.’ The Japanese tea room — despite its very appealing form and philosophy — was too culturally specific for the vague purposes I had in mind. I sought a species of enclosed space that offered similar possibilities for transcendental experience but was more universally available. That’s when I discovered the bathroom.”
Since closing WET in the early 80s Koren has made a career of slim, simple, beautifully designed books focused on bathing, Japanese culture, and simpler living. He’s written How to Take a Japanese Bath, an illustrated instructional pamphlet, and Undesigning the Bath, a study of bath design that criticizes the apparently widespread practice of designing bathrooms and tubs for looks rather than use, and instructs us to search for “alternative bath metaphors.”
In Undesigning the Bath, Koren talks about how good bathing is tied into the “metaphysically refined” as opposed to the “obsessively base.” It’s a safe and cozy place where “you feel safe enough to put aside your social roles, relax your body armor, and open your psyche to the moment.” Bathing “awakens your mind to the existence of your body and your body to the existence of your mind.” It puts you in touch with your biological rhythms and a sense of timelessness. “The mechanical world of objective time—seconds, minutes, hours—is irrelevant here.” In other words, the bath is a place without history. It puts us in touch with nature — with natural spirits and gods. “Nature communicates eloquently.” “While bathing you may experience revelations: flashes, glints, significant connections, and transcendent understandings.” Crucially, this sacred aspect of bathing is all internal.