Author, architect and swimmer Christie Pearson recently published The Architecture of Bathing: Body, Landscape, Art, a manifesto for understanding public bathing spaces as a vital source of social change and collective action. Here, she discusses outdoor swimming spaces, activism and the need to defend our “aquatic commons” from commercialisation.
Over many years I have been writing short stories based on trips to pools, beaches, saunas, hot springs, hammam – all the places where people come together to bathe. The stories try to open some of the many dimensions of these everyday rituals cultivated all around the world, where relationships to the natural, architectural, cultural, social, material, and so much of who we are come to the fore. This past year I published a book springing from these stories into a deeper look at public bathing spaces. The Architecture of Bathing: Body, Landscape, Art articulates a neglected field of study raising the importance of public bathing spaces. These are unique and precious forms of public space where the body in relation cannot be forgotten. With my background as a traveller, architect and artist, I wanted to understand better why communal bathing spaces continue to inspire and delight us, continuing a thread of inquiry raised by writers and scholars of the bath including Sigfried Giedion, Leonard Koren and Mikkel Aaland.
The Architecture of Bathing is a manifesto for an expanded vision and role of architecture in relation to the world. At the heart of complex relationships between landscape, body, art and architecture, I found bathing spaces to be at the centre of tensions between public and private, race, class, gender and sexuality, sacred and profane, ritual and habitual, pure and impure, nature and culture. As public spaces they serve as an embodied and participatory democracy. While the forms of swimming pool, sauna and sento may be robust and enduring, they rely on active participants and defenders on location to survive. In the relative vulnerability of the sauna or the swimming pool, we are permitted to imagine and test new behaviours and form new publics and counter publics. Architectures of public bathing emerge as dynamic civic spaces, where outdated collective agreements fade and new ideas of being together are tested.
While the forms of swimming pool, sauna and sento may be robust and enduring, they rely on active participants and defenders on location to survive.
Even the wildest bathing spaces are codified by cultural practices we bring with us. I try to convey some of these broader social dynamics in vignettes like this one, based on a swim and sauna on a northern lake in the USA:
We know we can get to the docks before the sun goes down, where fresh air mixed with the heavy smell of diesel will welcome us like an old friend. We fill up the boat taxi with cans of beans and beer and set off across the wide blue clear expanse. It will pick us up Sunday at 3. Empty sky, choppy waves create puddles around our feet. We are left on a tiny outcropping of rock sprinkled with pine and cedar and birch. A couple of other islands blur into distant shadows. Gas lamps and fires are lit, burn, and burn out. As we snuggle under crocheted blankets piled upon old quilts we talk and laugh till we can’t keep our eyes open any more. When daylight seeps in between the trees, it slices through the logs, cobwebs and windows. Wood is fed into the huge cast-iron stove, and then coffee bubbling and bread toasting mingle with the musty furniture. She’s already stoking the sauna with wood. A creaky screen door that claps shut. We emerge one by one, eyes dazed by the light and the dark, stepping out onto the rocks. There are three small shacks outside: the wood storage, the outhouse and the sauna. It’ll take a few hours to heat up. We smoke. Our bare feet embrace the warming granite, toes stroke golden threads of dried pine needles that gather in their cracks. Exploring the island and around the edges till we find the best place to go in.
The sun is getting higher and we’re ready to enter. We will swim with tiny flitting fish. Looking through the rippling surface my feet dance with patterns of golden-green light. Stepping out deeper we become goose-pimpled and giggling with cold. I look around cautiously, there’s nobody, nobody for miles. Inhale and under. The water is perfectly clear, clean, sweet and delicious – the same water we bring in by pails out on the north side to drink. Our hair snaking expands out as we relax: we are water nymphs so it’s totally okay to drink the liquid we swim in, pee in the liquid we bathe in, drink our own water pooled here from some ice age granite left millions of thousands of years ago just here for us to splash in. Slipping on slimy stones that are all original somehow, and we know we are original, too. We swim out a little further to test our strokes, heading towards the next rocky outcrop. Something in the distance – a bee, a wasp, a sting. Nymphs pause between Scylla and Charybdis and turn together towards a dot on the horizon and its pure, high sound. The dot gets bigger. It’s two guys in a boat coming towards us at high speed. At the last minute the boat swerves, spraying us sidewise in their wake. Laughing and yelling they head out for a wide turn, then back for another pass.
"..we are water nymphs so it’s totally okay to drink the liquid we swim in, pee in the liquid we bathe in, drink our own water pooled here from some ice age granite left millions of thousands of years ago just here for us to splash in. Slipping on slimy stones that are all original somehow, and we know we are original, too."
This hybridity of nature/culture is part of what makes the design and improvisation around bathing spaces charged and dynamic. According to architectural historian Sigfried Giedion, architectures of bathing have been in constant flux due to cultural exchange throughout history. His research on the traditions of thermae, swimming pool, banya, sauna, and hammam, pointed to ongoing cross-cultural influence and capacity for reinvention. The final chapter of his book, Mechanization Takes Command, focuses on the public bath. Giedion traces its forms and lineages through history, emphasising their civilising force and capacity to bring people together. As he saw it, this was key to rebuilding Europe following a half-century of wars. Giedion also insists that bathing cultures are inherently social, and rich bathing architectures are inherently public. His research reveals how the many forms of the public bath as forms of collective regeneration, and looked towards a new, international society built upon care and relationship. Bringing his critique into our times, we recognise the inextricability of environmental, social and political forces at a planetary scale. The recent pandemic has revealed our fundamental porosity at a visceral level. Looking forward, our communities reach out to embrace all of the human and non-human beings that depend upon our capacity to understand interdependency.
The desire for communal bathing today combines an ecological consciousness with a renewed interest in pleasure and the quality of everyday life. Investment in the reclamation of ex-industrial waterfronts and crumbling public lidos in cities combine with landscapes and infrastructures to face global climate change. From the harbour baths of Copenhagen, Denmark (BIG) to the Qunli, China stormwater wetland park (Turenscape), the enjoyment of water in cities is rising. I notice how often these profound transformations start with water-loving citizens who come together: bottom-up swimming activism comes from people who notice water quality issues, pollution, and neglect. By combining their voices, outdoor swimming groups around the world are finding increasing power at political, social and environmental levels. The Flussbad Berlin project is one example of how an annual swimming event in the core of the City uses its visibility to promote their vision of a swimmable Spree Canal using plant-based phytoremediation and a restructuring of the water’s edge. In Kingston, Canada, local citizens partnered with environmental groups and the city to improve sewage facilities, transforming the downtown waterfront with its swimmable, fishable pier.
From the harbour baths of Copenhagen, Denmark (BIG) to the Qunli, China stormwater wetland park (Turenscape), the enjoyment of water in cities is rising. I notice how often these profound transformations start with water-loving citizens who come together: bottom-up swimming activism comes from people who notice water quality issues, pollution, and neglect. By combining their voices, outdoor swimming groups around the world are finding increasing power at political, social and environmental levels.
Like the many forms of the commons, the aquatic commons are everywhere under strain of global capitalism and technologies of isolation. I hope that we can build more connections between experiments, movements, and cultures around the world that could gain from a reframed context, such as Japan’s National Sento Association and Britain’s Save the Lido activists, who are both working to counter forms of privatisation. The spaces where we swim together, sweat together and wash together are embodied social space that connect us to the continuity of corporeal life ageing, birth and death. They offer us a chance to re-connect our bodies to each other and to the body of the world as it is.