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At your Convenience: The Story of the Modern Bathroom

Through a vast and vivid selection of examples, Barbara Penner investigates the home of our most basic self-image: the bathroom

For an investigation of how we evacuate and what we do with the results, this is a remarkably clean book. It is not until page 240 of Barbara Penner’s excellent Bathroom, that she quotes the 1970s English activist Graham Caine calling for a toilet that would ensure that ‘one relates to one’s own shit’. The style and the subject matter of this Reaktion Books’ ‘Objekt Series’ mimic each other. As Penner points out, bathrooms are about making us not know what we do in there. They are, she says, about ‘flush and forget’.

Still, this is not a book for the squeamish. No matter how polite and erudite the author is, it is hard to get through almost three hundred pages of descriptions of every sort of device and method of disposal without feeling as if you are spending too much time thinking about what we have been trained to ignore. Penner, in other words, works by an accumulation of examples rather than by forcing us to smell the opposite of the roses (though night soil is a good fertiliser).

Penner’s central thesis is that ‘disconnect is actually plumbed into the developed world’s water networks, which are created to render not only the user but also the impact of use invisible …’, but also that this very system has made bathrooms the ‘hinge between private and public realms, the place where bodies, technologies, domestic interiors and urban systems most intimately interact’. This hinge has two aspects: the actual equipment and the methods by which waste is handled. Though we tend to think of both as the result of technological advances, they are, as Penner points out, more about social and political choices about what we do with available equipment and methodologies.

It was not pre-ordained, for instance, that water-based disposal would become the standard in use all around the world and the emblem of urban civilisation. Penner shows how far into the 20th century night-soil collection and treatment persisted not only in China, but also in places such as Amsterdam. Now it is making a bit of a comeback, with composting toilets developed for places like India that deal well (or so the author says) with issues of pathogens as well as smells. The implication is that a movement that saw developing countries adopting a particular technology developed in the UK and the US might begin flowing the other way.


Grimshaw Architects’ ‘Serivce Tower’, created as part of a scheme to turn terraced houses into student accommodation. The helical tower houses all of the bathroom and laundry facilities behind a frosted glass skin

That might also have an implication for the fixtures, which are, as Penner says, ‘discreet … and disconnected’. Over the years they have become more and more abstract, shedding materials such as wood and metal, along with decoration, to become white porcelain artefacts that are smooth and seamless. Bathroom is filled with examples of the road not taken, such as the intricacies of a female urinal from the beginning of the 18th century to, in a less extreme manner, Alvar Aalto’s attempt to design a more logical washbasin. The author also takes us to the extremes of art, where sculptors from Claes Oldenburg (Soft Toilet, 1963) to Joep van Lieshout (Master and Slave Unit, 1995) have made us look at the potential beauty or horror of those implements.

Along the way, Penner traces styles and variations, noting especially that bathrooms in recent years have once again become social places (though only for nuclear families) and places of sensuality, for the wealthy, while prefab toilets have proliferated everywhere else to an extent that is exceptional in the specialised world of domestic construction. The airy world of the 1960s, when bubble baths and pink tiles were meant to make us feel all ‘airy … and frictionless’, has given way to the extreme slickness of Ron Arad’s and Zaha Hadid’s excursions into the sanitary world.

Though Penner does not call for any particular kind of toilet, you sense her desire for not only more honesty, but perhaps a sacralisation, or at least honouring, of these objects and systems that are now so neutral and invisible. She notes the washbasin in Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, whose freestanding placement she compares to a baptismal font, as well as the sensuality of the house’s ceramic chaise longue perched in the middle of the bathroom under a skylight. She shows us Philippe Starck’s icon-oriented designs, which have been so influential it is difficult to tell the original from its many copies. She reminds us that, despite industry standards, we are not all built the same, nor do we have the same needs, and that we need ‘inclusive’ toilet design. Along the way, she shows various attempts to reform toilets to conform more to the body’s natural position when evacuating.

Where the body and technology meet, this immensely useful little volume points out, is exactly where we have to confront our most basic self-image, but we always do so through an elaborate system that plugs that sense of our body into a network of implements and biases that are socially constructed. It makes me wonder: what would a socially liberating toilet system look like? Penner gives hints, but leaves us hanging. It’s a lot to think about next time you are on the crapper.


Author: Barbara Penner

Publisher: Reaktion Books

Price: £16.95

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