Until 28 January next year, Soak, Steam, Dream: Reinventing Bathing Culture is on at Roca Galleries, in Chelsea Harbour. It’s an exhibition primarily of architectural designs for bathing spaces – saunas and bathhouses and the like – and old photographs and archival documents.
Roca Galleries was designed by Zaha Hadid Architects and opened in 2011 – to see and touch a bit of Zaha architecture it is worth the trek to Chelsea Harbour alone. The Gallery, part of the brand-extension of the Roca bathroom fixtures and fittings business, claims to be a place where design, architecture and sustainability can be discussed.
The concept of the exhibition is really interesting – but the display itself less so – probably due to the fact that you are, inescapably, in a bathroom showroom – albeit one by Zaha Hadid. Jane Withers – the curator – explores how from the baths of Ancient Greece and Rome to the Islamic haman or European spa towns, bathing was central to community life, and the bathhouse an institution for both health and pleasure, as well as providing sanitation.
In a beautifully produced exhibition catalogue, Withers argues too that the bathhouse was a place of social, cultural and political exchange as well as relaxation and rejuvenation. But by the twentieth century, with the advent of sanitation and plumbing to individual dwellings, the private bathroom emerged and the pendulum of bathing swung away from rejuvenation to hygiene. The communal bathhouse and social space it engendered exists no more. Today what Withers called the ‘Modernist hygiene movement’ has reduced the act of bathing to an exercise in ‘joyless ergonomics and efficient ablution’. The gym, the spa and the private bathroom have replaced the communal bathhouse.
Withers has assembled a number of projects by international architects and designers for the exhibition, which illustrate a renewed interest in ancient precedents, informing a twenty-first century bathing culture. What these contemporary projects have in common with the now-defunct bathhouse is that they propose bathing as a catalyst to the creation of communities.
Of the 10 projects on display at Roca, one is by Czech practice H3T Architekti. Since 2009, HT3 has created a series of temporary, utilitarian saunas and inserted them in unexpected urban and non-urban spaces – such as a sauna floating on a pond in Podĕbrad, a flying sauna suspended from a bridge so it hangs above the River Elbe (reachable only by boat), and even a mobile sweat-lodge pulled by tandem bicycle. H3T makes clear their social, community-building intent by making their saunas accessible to anyone who can supply their own firewood to heat the sauna.
Withers catalogue and essay argues that while modern sanitation transformed human health, we lost a connection to water. She quotes philosopher Ivan Illich:
‘In the imagination of the twentieth century, water lost both its power to communicate by touch its deep-seated purity and its mystical power to wash off spiritual blemish. It has become an industrial and technical detergent.’
It you want to contemplate how bathing and the bathhouse can be community spaces, or just buy yourself a new bathroom, then get down to Roca London Gallery, Fulham.
Soak, Steam, Dream: Reinventing Bathing Culture can be seen at Roca London Gallery till 28 January 2017.