Paying a visit to the smallest room


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.

The 300-year-old Sukaya onsen near Mt Hakkoda, Japan – one of my most memorable bathing experiences (image: rurubu.jp)

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.

Villa Savoye

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.)

Japanese-style bath for sale

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

my open bathroom

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.

barely-there ensuite

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?

Categories: Architecture, Australia, DesignTags: , , , , , , , , , ,

17 comments

  1. I suppose a funnel built into the bed isn’t that far removed from a porcelain po under it, which I remember elderly relatives having when I was a child! I laughed at your description of the ’70s bathroom. What were they thinking?! And even though I grew up in England I’m disgusted by the idea of bathroom carpet now. I both admire and am alarmed by your open bathroom. I picture all the huntsmen spiders rustling their hairy legs in anticipation of scaring the bejesus out of someone while on the loo.
    Unrenovated bathrooms in Canberra have a glassless gap of several centimetres in the window, I guess for ventilation, but it’s the daftest thing I’ve seen, given that the temp here is often often minus-something on winter mornings. Having said that, I quite like the idea of having an outdoor bath, perhaps in a field, warmed by a fire underneath. You’d have to be pretty deft at getting the fire/water temperature balance just right, though.
    My ideal bathroom would be cedar and green slate, and the fixtures and fittings would have rounded edges. I’m thinking opulent cave. And there’d be a skylight in the roof so that I could lie in the bath and look at the stars, but huntsmen would not be welcome.

    • Oh huntsmen are nothing compared to locking eyes with a python wrapped around the beams above you. Amazing what you get used to… It’s always been our intention to put a bath out in the paddock, with the fire underneath, but I think it’s becoming one of those nice-ideas that will live only in fantasy…. Cedar and green slate sounds excellent. I think having wood in the bathroom really adds to the comfort and appeal of a good bathroom. Very tempted by that wooden tub!

  2. I have a sneaking fondness for the opulent Victorian bathroom, clanking plumbing and all, complete with staff to run the bath and supply warm towels. Apart from that I deeply envy a friend’s bathroom. Her adoring, much older, engineer husband created a sanctuary that features a hugely deep tub with the ceiling a vast skylight for heavenly stargazing, The wall facing the tub is a fireplace, ideal in the Canadian winter. DId I mention the surround sound, a bigscreen TV and a minibar stocked with Veuve.The marriage endures. The Scandinavian wetroom approach has a certain sterile charm. I still remember fondly a friend’s loo in his forever-unfinished cabin, perched high above a fast-flowing river in the backwoods of Northern Ontario. No front door and no backdoor. Late night visits are the stuff of legend.

    • Well, now you’re talking – the effortless bath scenario, yes please. Your friend’s bathroom sounds beyond amazing – I think it might be difficult to leave, although only perhaps to restock the Veuve (just where did it all go??). I think Australia and Canada share the wonder of the backwoods cabin, which can be so wonderful, although I think the wonder of our brown snakes and your brown bears is always sobering…

  3. Love that open bathroom, which reminds me of somewhere I stayed once in India. And the ‘barely there ensuite’ is wonderful too. We had our home (UK) bathrooms renovated in 2008, but we made it too hotel-like and I regret the choices we made. I’m happy with the under-floor heating but horribly bored with the expanse of bland tiles. If I could do it all again…
    Guess that’s why I won’t let anyone make the choices for me in the French house. Drives the plumber insane!

    • It’s so hard to know, isn’t it, until you do it. And what feels fabulous in a hotel sometimes doesn’t transfer. I did something similar with walls and floor tiled in the same vanilla tile, which shows up every speck of dust and feels completely sterile. Easy to clean, though…

  4. My great grandfather’s house which my father inherited from his uncle had spectacular, huge, Victorian baths. One had lovely big porcelain feet and was big enough to wash three small children in at the same time. The other had a flat wooden surround, perfect for putting cups of tea on and an Agatha Christie. Baths were a serious business in my family, both my parents would take to a bath to read for a long time. I was shocked when I went to stay with a rather fierce aunt who informed me baths were for washing in – how boring! The very big one wasn’t very good for reading however because you couldn’t wedge yourself into a comfortable reading position because it was too long, the wooden edged one was perfect. The idea of open air loos fills me with dread!

    • Oh, I love those Victorian baths set into a wooden frame – usually mahogany. Machines for bathing in, I think! I used to bathe in that same languid way when I lived in London but now it’s all showers. A bath remains a special occasion, though, with candles, music and something to sip (even tea!)… You have a standing invite to visit our open bathroom, of course.

  5. I’ve never really thought about it, but you are right, bathrooms are very emotive spaces.
    I remember my grandparents’ bathroom being that black and white and very bright light pink. And of course, the avocado suites of the 70s. One house we bought had an avocado corner bath, which, since we had young children, was perfect. We have wonderful photos of the girls and sometimes their friends in the bath all covered in bubbles and having great fun.
    I absolutely love the idea of a bathroom open to the elements and creatures joining you in your ablutions.
    I suppose bathrooms are emotive because they are such private spaces, we are with ourselves doing private things. I do think showers can be like baptisms, allowing us to start anew.
    2 points – I also hate carpeted bathrooms( the Aussies are right) and en suites. I thought the Japanese thought baths were disgusting, wallowing in your own filth, and only ever took showers.
    Great post, in any event!

    • Ah, those 1970s bathrooms! And I bet the girls thought a corner bath was simply brilliant, regardless of its colour… The Japanese adore baths and most houses have a dedicated wet room but there’s quite a process of cleaning before you even enter the bath. That top picture of the huge old onsen was simply amazing – like stepping into a scene in a woodcut – the smell of cedar, the extremely hot milky water fed in from the hot spring outside, the seriousness of the whole activity of simply bathing. Baptismal, as you say. I felt a million dollars afterwards…

      • Ah, that makes more sense. I always thought, rather like the Aussies and the carpet, that the Japanese saw us as revolting as we lay in our own filth. But if part of the deal is being very clean before you get in …
        Stepping into a woodcut – fabulous!

  6. From friends who used to live in Japan, I’ve picked up the habit of putting a flower or two in the bathroom when we have any growing.

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