The Bathroom, Flush with Ideology

By Barbara Penner

Homage to the bathroom and its hidden magic at the Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan.

In the summer of 2009, I went on a pilgrimage. My destination: The John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan Wisconsin, celebrated for its artist-designed washrooms. The institution itself has a long history of bringing together art and plumbing through its Arts/Industry program, which offers artists the opportunity to produce work in the company’s pottery (one of the world’s largest), iron and brass foundries and enamel workshop. In this sense, the Kohler washrooms can be seen as the consummation of the company’s interest in uniting the most basic of human needs—the need to urinate and defecate—with the most elevated of our faculties—the ability to appreciate beauty.

The coordinator of the Arts/Industry program, Mike Ogilvie, offered me a tour. The washrooms were a revelation. One highlight was Merill Mason’s women’s room, Emptying and Filling.  Gloves, lipsticks. and combs—all cast iron, capturing perfectly the tensions of the female toilette and the discipline required to achieve beauty. 

Detail from Merill Mason's Emptying and Filling

Mike then guarded the door as I inspected the men’s rooms, though the precaution was probably not necessary (at the Center women and men routinely trespass into each other’s washrooms to view the art). Matt Nolan’s The Social History of Architecture was an art historical tour de force: Each fixture, representing a particular playful riff on the idea of the toilet as a ‘seat of power.’ But it was in Ann Agee’s Sheboygan Men’s Room that I experienced my Eureka moment.

On entering Sheboygan Men’s Room, my first impression was a rather bijou space, filled with details that evoked times past: Delicate hand painted blue-and-white tiles showing picturesque views. Initially taken in by the prettiness of it all, I became aware only gradually that this space was anything but an exercise in nostalgia. As I contemplated an image of what at first glance seemed to be a quiet pond, the penny finally dropped: the ‘pond’ was actually a tank, part of the city’s water treatment works. Looking closer I realized that all of the Men’s Room vignettes depict Sheboygan water system in action. and in case one misses the point a diagram of the system is located on the wall above the paper towel dispenser, functioning is a key to the whole.

Note the diagram of water use on the right wall above the towel dispenser., showing how water is delivered. Below, more ornate urinal and toilet from The Sheboygan Men's Room.

Quite apart from their artfulness, Agee’s images inspired me because they portrayed things that we regularly use or experience in a fragmented and remote way—a lake, a swimming pool, a car wash, a water gun, a sprinkler, a treatment plant—and make their interconnectedness clear. By organizing these episodes into a single space and into a single decorative scheme, the vignettes replicate the way in which water and sanitation infrastructure enables and links disparate moments in our daily lives, both mundane and pleasurable, small and grand. Standing in Men’s Room we understand that we are implicated too: even our most basic actions—flushing the toilet, turning on the tap, make us part of the scenes on the walls.

The vast majority of people take it for granted that treated, potable hot and cold water will be on tap 24 hours a day, and that waste can be flushed speedily away. Our everyday routines by standards of hygiene and our understanding of civility, are all constructed around these ordinary facts. We tend to assume that access to water and its unfettered use is our right, and do not give much thought to what enables it.

This feeling of disjunction is further emphasized by our tendency to treat the bathroom as private, even as the most private space in the house, where we are able to indulge in the most personal of all of our routines. We refer to the bathroom as ‘the smallest room’ to reflect both its small scale and its direct relationship to our bodies; in short we value it precisely because it is so good at shutting the world out. Yet as these interconnected episodes remind us, “the smallest room” depends on and is plugged into, the vast infrastructural network beyond. The bathroom thus is a hinge between private and public realms the space where bodies, technologies, domestic interiors and urban systems most intimately interact.

Isthmia, mosaic from the Roman Baths. By Zde - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The most famous public bathing culture was that of the ancient Romans, which was extended across their empire to Europe and North Africa. But it has been an integral feature of other civilizations as well. Think of Turkish hammams, Japanese sento bath houses and onsen, and Finnish saunas. And European bath houses and thermal baths continue to thrive, from venerable old establishments like Munich’s Muller’sches Volkshad to stunning new ones such as Therme Vals in Switzerland designed by the architect Peter Zumthor.

The rise of privacy has resulted in the general privatization of western bathing culture, though this did not happen evenly, or all at once,, given that ‘private’ was increasingly equated with ‘exclusive.’  It is not surprising that private, and often very luxurious, bathrooms first appeared in Europe in aristocratic or bourgeois homes. Until the 1920s, and sometimes well after that, rural or poor urban inhabitants were mostly left to carry on as before, with outhouses and communal privies (which were often sites of socializing), public bath houses, showers, and swimming pools.

But, privacy and related concerns about decency, left their mark on these establishments too. Communal privies were downsized, and public baths were more rigorously subdivided to ensure the segregation of men from women and with partitions doors and cubicles men from other men and women from other women. Highly atomised bathing arrangements are now so naturalized throughout much of Europe and North America that we have trouble imagining them any other way. The ancient communal latrine still visible at Hadrian’s Wall, for instance, or even the two -seater privy in the garden of William Morris’s Kelmscott Manor in the Cotswolds, seem quite alien to visitors who come upon them now-amusing curiosities from a distant past. But there are many parts of the world such as Southeast Asia India and Africa were open or communal bathing and toileting arrangements remain the norm.

Marcel Duchamp, 1917, Fountain. Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz

One of the most iconic works in the history of modern art, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), teasingly asserted the quasi-spiritual aura of the urinal. But by turning it upside down and leaving it unplumbed, Duchamp made it unusable, perversely denying us the release that encounters with urinals and with art are meant to provide.

One legacy of Duchamp’s work is that generations of artists have been inspired to use sanitary fittings in their works or have sited their work in bathrooms. Some have reworked Fountain itself such as Sherrie Levine’s version cast in bronze in 1991. Many, however, have simply drawn from Duchamp the lesson that bathroom fittings are ambiguous in meaning. They unsettle. They provoke. In short, they are anything but plain pieces of plumbing as Duchamp’s supporters ingenuously maintained. Artists today use the bathroom to probe personal and collective repressions and the way these affect identity, especially female or queer identity. In their works, the bathroom emerges as a classic ‘backstage’ space, a place that hides the messy realities of the female body, such as Judy Chicago’s Menstruation Bathroom (1972), contains sexual desire (Terence Koh’s sculpture Medusa, 2006), or permits moments of revelation and remaking (tropes beautifully enacted in some of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, 1977 -80).

The acknowledgement of these artworks is important because they speak powerfully of the body experience and bathroom use and abuse—subjects that are often suppressed in polite discourse and which emerge instead in euphemisms or jokes. We can’t ignore the fact that, rather than being too inconsequential for words, bathrooms remain embarrassing, even unspeakable, subjects for many, even for those in the design professions. Artworks that reimagine the bathroom and its fittings, like Alex Schweder’s Siamese urinal, Bi-Bardon (2001), addresses these strategic silences, often with wit and humanity. They open up questions. Why are bathrooms designed as they are? cCuld they be designed differently? And if they were, how might our society be transformed?

Alex Schweder's siamese urinal.
Detail from Terence Koh's Medusa, a transcendent water closet where sex, death and religion collide.

Barbara Penner’s exploration of the fixtures and fixations in “the smallest room of the house” was excerpted from The Bathroom published by Reaktion Books ( 2013 ). This volume is also available in paperback from University of Chicago Press for $30.

Penner is a professor of Architectural Humanities at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London.  Her research covers nineteenth-century hotels and department stores, twentieth-century honeymoon resorts, bathrooms and kitchens, and urban housing.

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