I’ve been thinking about bathrooms a lot lately, mainly because it’s winter and our upstairs bathroom has a heated floor, which makes it the warmest room in the house. Mornings are suddenly bliss, whereas previously – before we renovated – the old bathroom was cold and damp, the towels still moist from the previous day, the tiled floor a freezing affront to my bed-warm feet.
A good bathroom is always a pleasure to use. And yet they’re often utilitarian spaces which frankly give little pleasure. I’ve always fancied a bathroom with a fireplace and possibly an armchair, not so anyone else can sit there but more for me to prolong the pleasure of a bath. Le Corbusier was a bathroom enthusiast and advised they should be one of the largest rooms in a house. The bathroom in his Villa Savoye is a great example, with plenty of space and somewhere to recline if the mood grabs you. It’s a touch of Ancient Rome, or maybe a Japanese onsen, a room to be enjoyed and to take your time. The bathrooms of my youth were certainly never that.
I remember the house we moved to in the early 1970s. It was classic 1930s, with fireplaces in the bedrooms, and a primrose yellow suite in the one and only bathroom. After those pesky period fireplaces were ripped out and central heating installed, the bathroom was gutted. What replaced it was something orangey-brown, with a fibreglass bath and an orange shagpile carpet, and new melamine cupboards to replace the fine wooden ones. I remember gazing at the old yellow bath dumped outside on the lawn and having a vague sense that what we were doing was wrong. And yet who couldn’t love the new shower and the orangey-brown mosaic tiles with the orangey-brown Laura Ashley wallpaper above that? Especially when the whole space was drenched in the sweet scent of my sister’s Aquamanda toiletries, in their orangey-brown packaging.
The idea of carpet in the bathroom seems to be a British thing, introducing extra softness to a space in which you are perhaps most vulnerable. I remember some relatives had a bath sunk in the centre of their large bathroom, the only break within a veritable field of lush carpet. But I was disappointed to discover that it looked less like something out of a James Bond film and more like something that should have been covered over with palm fronds to trap wild animals. In Australia, bathroom floors are always tiled. There’s a grate in the floor so that water from an overflowing bath or basin is diverted outside, very practical. Australians think carpet in the bathroom is rather disgusting. (They also loathe wallpaper and view a washing machine in the kitchen as another symbol of the Brits’ revolting habits.)
This shows that bathrooms are emotive spaces. Perhaps that explains why we think nothing of pouring so much money into them, as though to make up for the careless way we treated them in the past. I’m sure even a decade ago I would never have dreamed of installing underfloor heating. And so today we drool over luxurious bathrooms featured in glossy magazines, wowed by hi-tech taps and rainforest showerheads. And yet still they can feel a little soulless.
Recently I visited the home of one of Australia’s foremost architects, Richard Leplastrier. He is famous for his emphasis on simplicity and sustainability, and his buildings have a pleasing Japanese look. As a young man he worked for Jørn Utzon, architect of the Sydney Opera House, and for Kenzo Tange, famous for his crisply-shaped buildings in Tokyo and beyond. Simplicity and beauty have been key elements in Leplastrier’s work ever since. His own home is like a Japanese pavilion, sitting within a magical landscape overlooking one of Sydney’s hidden waterways. A large, deep bath sits on the deck, perfect for a long soak under the stars, but the proper bathroom with its shower, basin and loo is quite separate, accessed along a decked pathway. It has no walls at all, just a big sheltering roof, and so your own call of nature is complemented by the surrounding calls of nature, like abundant birdsong. Many of the homes he has designed for others have the same separation of bathhouse and actual house, even right in the middle of Sydney
It struck a chord with me because my partner and I have a place in the country, nothing more than a glorified shed. The bathroom is separate, with one wall that is completely open to one side, looking out to a clump of trees. It means that you often feel the watchful eyes of a possum or goanna as you shower. Sometimes inquisitive birds flit over your shoulder when you’re shaving, drawn by the sound of running water. Rats eat the soap if you leave it uncovered and we were once troubled by a bright green tree frog that was determined to set up home in the toilet bowl. But it’s a glorious place and I love it. Some people, when they see it, utter little shrieks, shocked by its exposure and the idea of being observed. But it works in Australia’s climate, except on days when gale force winds drive in the rain.
It’s odd how precious we’ve become about the whole bathing/ toileting thing. And yet modern hotels often have bathrooms that are open to the bedroom or barely concealed beyond a glass wall. I’ve never been a fan of the ensuite bathroom, especially if the loo is only a step or two away from the bed. Practicality is important but so is the spirit of place and I do not want to sit on a loo in my bedroom. The great Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta had a funnel built into the head of his bed so he could relieve himself in the middle of the night. Not sure what Madame Horta thought of that but I’m imagining a grimace and an eye-roll.
As I warm my toes on the heated floor and step into a shower defined only by a sheet of glass, I sometimes wish I could open up the outside wall to the garden, or slide back the ceiling so I could enjoy the stars and bring back a true sense of place. Bathing is something of a sacred ritual when you think about it – the preparing for the day, the cleansing at the end of the day. Friends of mine often have ‘emotional’ showers, understanding that a few mindful minutes spent standing in flowing water can help wash off anxiety and a dark mood. I think that’s a wonderful idea. And maybe, when we acknowledge this meaningful aspect of our bathrooms, and appreciate the precious time spent within them, then we’ll create a bathroom that truly supports us. Even if that means, for someone, an orangey-brown colour scheme.
What would be your perfect bathroom?