Book Review: The Architecture of Bathing—Body, Landscape, Art

Architect and teacher Christie Pearson's new book celebrates the ease and pleasures of communal bathing places.

In this image from 1988, locals claim the overflow from a geothermal power plant for leisure at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland. The site now includes a spa complex with formal bathing pools, designed by Sigridur Sigporsdottir of Basalt Architects. Image courtesy Laura McPhee and Virginia Beahan

By Christie Pearson (MIT Press, 2020)

For as long as I can remember, I have had a deep attachment to the ritual of private baths. As a transgender man, my relationship to public bathing, however, is fraught. While all bodies are vulnerable in communal bathing spaces, non-conforming bodies like mine are frequently subject to heightened scrutiny. The ease and pleasure of communal bathing that architect, writer, teacher, and urban interventionist Christie Pearson beautifully celebrates in her book The Architecture of Bathing: Body, Landscape, Art almost always elude me.

My own complicated experience with public bathing is what drew me to Pearson’s compelling and important book, which positions communal pools, bathhouses, and spas as sites that continually transform themselves in relation to cultural values and priorities. Ultimately, bathing spaces emerge as testing grounds for how we interact with each other and our environment.

Pearson weaves vivid personal accounts of a wide range of bathing architectures with discussions of how bathing has been considered in architectural design, cultural history, art practice, philosophy and literature. Her engaging text is supported by over 200 illustrations, including many of her own photographs from years of traveling to public bathing sites around the world. Pearson’s self-reflexivity—grounded in queer, feminist, ecological, and decolonializing practices—is a refreshing tone for an architectural text, and strikes the right note for a discussion of the very intimate, culturally specific ritual of bathing. Pearson’s assemblage of vivid imagery, rich personal anecdotes, philosophical discussions, and historical references carries the reader away in a pleasurable stream of consciousness.

In the first section, Bodies, Pearson explores how bathing spaces support human bodies, and argues for the importance of pleasure and enjoyment in our experience of the built environment. The designers of public bathing spaces often struggle to find a balance between utilitarianism and pleasure. The notion of deriving pleasure from communal bathing architectures is more complex than a simple critique of bathtub ergonomics, as it is complicated by the ways that individuals fit (or do not fit) within the dominant social framework. (Pearson’s own final project in architecture school—one of the starting points for her research on bathing architecture—was a design for a bathhouse that “problematized gender divisions.’’)

Children play in the Shonek Brunnen public fountain in Basel, Switzerland. Photo by Christie Pearson

Today, architects are creating more inclusive communal bathing spaces for all genders, such as in MJMA’s Pam McConnell Aquatic Centre in Regent Park, Toronto. Here, all-gender change rooms, designed for complete individual privacy, cleverly encourage collectivity. By disrupting the common sex-segregated changeroom design, this project enables more people the opportunity to access pleasure in the built environment.

In the book’s second section, which focuses on Landscapes, Pearson argues that communal baths have the capacity to hold space for social transformation and to push for environmental change. Natural landscapes often inspire form-making for architects of bathing spaces: what is a shower, after all, but a mini waterfall? Cultural mythologies of purity and impurity are also poignant as they relate to water sources, religious and cultural ceremonies, and contemporary bathing spaces.

Certain new bathing architectures elevate natural purification processes, such as gh3’s Borden Park Pool in Edmonton, challenging the long-standing Modernist vision of purity as a pool of crystal clear (chlorinated) blue water. The idea of water’s purity or impurity is also at the forefront for urbanists and city builders attempting to reclaim the post-industrial waterfront as a site of leisure. Pearson cites tactical urbanist interventions—such as Mjölk Sauna, which was built overnight by Mjölk Architects as a “gift to the city” of Liberec in the Czech Republic—to suggest ways that we can reclaim our cities’ waterfronts as sites of pleasure, while increasing pressure on governments to improve water quality.

Mjölk Architects installed this public sauna in secret at the city dam in Liberec, Czech Republic. The sauna was built on an abandoned concrete platform, and is accessed by rowboat from a local restaurant, which also provides keys and firewood. Photo by Tomás Tesar

In the third and final section, Practices, Pearson reflects on cultural practices surrounding bathing sites. Here, she considers how bathing architectures support rituals that guide our movement through spaces with different water temperatures, humidity levels, and other sensorial qualities. Communal spas like the hammam are constructed around the ideas of ritual and circuit: each space has its own purpose and follows the next, as Pearson writes, “in support of a transformation within a collective context.”

Pearson also speaks to the way that bathing can transform our relationship to the environment. Since bathing architectures are intrinsically more attuned to elemental properties, they can serve as important examples of designing to connect to the environment in meaningful and transformative ways. For example, at the Blue Lagoon Spa in Reykjavik, wastewater runoff pools around a geothermal facility provide a swimming opportunity. Rather than concealing the impact of industry on landscape, this project works with it, in Pearson’s assessment “bridging and incorporating processes of destruction and creation.”

Just like the communal bathing sites it explores, The Architecture of Bathing makes space for complex narratives about our bodies, our relationship to the environment, and our cultural practices. More than just immersive environments for our bodies, the community pool, the sauna, the hammam, the sento, the bathhouse, and the spa are potential sites of transformation at both personal and collective levels. Communal bathing sites can also serve as a stage for new ideas, where, as Pearson puts it, “the script can be continuously rewritten by whoever shows up.” I recommend you dive in.

Max Yuristy is an Intern Architect at Toronto-based LGA Architectural Partners. He is also a photographer.