April 21, 2009

Toilet Expert Separates Form and Function of Bathrooms

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Curious students and faculty trickled into Sibley Hall yesterday afternoon to hear Barbara Penner, lecturer in architectural history in the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London, elucidate the relationship between bathrooms, social boundaries and architecture.
As Penner took the podium, the house lights fell to yield the title, “X is for An Expert on Bathrooms: Alexander Kira & Peter Greenaway’s 26 Bathrooms,” brightly projected onto the screen behind her.
The lecture featured a screening of Peter Greenaway’s 1985 film entitled Inside Rooms: 26 Bathrooms.
Accompanied by English composer Michael Nyman’s whimsical score, the film guided the audience on an intimate, 26-minute tour of 26 British bathrooms. In addition, Penner referenced the work of Alexander Kira, esteemed expert on bathrooms and author of the cult-classic The Bathroom. Kira was a professor of architecture at Cornell for a long time.
“I’ve been writing about toilets for a decade now, from both historical and theoretical points of view,” Penner began.
“Toilets and bathrooms, by their very nature, are often a problem for architects because they disrupt well-established systems of values,” Penner explained. “Toilets are not invisible … Rather, they have come to be spoken about in very particular ways to contain their subversive aspects.”
One attempt to contain the sordid aspects of bathrooms, Penner noted, has been the exception of the bathroom from the “form follows function” methodology, which influences the design of bathrooms to obscure their natural, practical purpose. This break between form and function constitutes a “cleansing distance.”
Throughout the lecture, Penner’s unusual insights kept her audience engaged. She was careful not to reveal too much about Greenaway’s Inside Rooms: 26 Bathrooms, prefacing the film by touching upon various themes and messages embedded beneath the film’s comical façade.
“My interest in Alexander Kira’s work and Peter Greenaway’s film is the way in which they very actively challenge this cleansing distance [between the form and the function of the bathroom] that remains relevant today.”
Arranged as a documentary showcasing the bathroom habits, the film featured intimate shots of undressed interviewees and their eccentric bathrooms. One character conversed with the camera while his son fumbled — in the backdrop — with his head down, cheeks up, in the bathtub for a missing bar of soap. Audience members could not contain their giggles during the minute in which the boy’s pasty buttocks graced the screen.
“The film is incredibly seductive. It exhibits a gentle kind of humor, and interestingly, Greenaway resists the sexual,” Penner said in reference to one scene in which a woman dressed in a pink leotard stood eating a cucumber in her bathroom, electronic music playing in the background.
Penner went on to discuss the significance of Kira’s 1966 book The Bathroom in establishing study and innovation in the bathroom.
“The Bathroom attempts to rethink and accommodate all aspects of human lavatory requirements … and to establish a new set of design criteria using anthropometric data” collected from studies done at Cornell from 1958 to 1965.
In conclusion, Penner said that the subject of bathrooms “has proven to be a powerful way of talking about how social categories like race, sex, and class are inscribed into the built environment and how architecture articulates and maintains certain social boundaries.”