A writer, artist, architect, and urban designer, Christie Pearson’s work is all about the relationship between water and public space. Her recently published book—The Architecture of Bathing—explores communal bathing at the intersection of architecture through beautiful images, theories, and personal stories.
Approaching the ritual of bathing from many angles, Christie also designs at Christie Pearson Architect in Toronto, edits at Scapegoat: Architecture/Landscape/Political Economy, and teaches at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture.
Christie understands that bathing is more than just a way to get clean. It can be a transformative experience and play a restorative role in our everyday lives, something that we hold close at GOODLAND. We spoke with Christie to hear her perspectives on bathing, ritual, and more.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Was there a bathing experience that started your journey into exploring the connection with architecture and bathing?
C: I was very struck by learning about the public baths of the ancient Roman world while studying architectural history, and I ended up doing a lot of creative projects that tried to get deeper into what the experience of visiting a thermae—a communal bath in ancient Rome—might have been like.While travelling to Hot Springs Cove in BC, I realized that these fantastic natural pools carved by time into the rock, cascading down the cliff side with their different temperatures were in fact similar to what the thermae were trying to do.
Your book explores and documents our history with communal/community bathing. What benefits do you think there are to a person or society from taking part in communal bathing?
C: I think that there are many benefits to communal bathing, especially in terms of our personal and collective sense of wellbeing and connection. This has been highlighted by the isolation during the current pandemic. Simply being around others helps us understand who we are and that feeling of belonging and participation.
I have also always been moved to see the bodies of people of different ages. It helps me to recognize where I am on this journey of life, where I’ve been, and where I’m going. We are all in a slow process of transformation. Bathing with others softly erodes the kinds of idealized versions of people that we sometimes create from our fears or projections.
What causes humans to have such a deep connection to bathing?
C: In my book, I am circling around this question. The elements of bathing traditions seem to follow some classic elements of rituals. We remove our protective clothing; overcome an initial reluctance or fear; then we expose ourselves to physical duress or contrast, alternating sweating with getting ice cold for example; then there is an element of relaxation; and finally a re-entry into our lives once more.
In highly developed bathing cultures, such as the hammam or the sento, we enjoy these rituals together with our friends, family, or neighbours.
Tell us about your most memorable or important bathing experience.
C: When I was a student in architecture school, I had a great summer job working for an archeology professor in Carthage, Tunisia, and was very excited to find that there was a hammam in our neighbourhood. The hammam was an amazing experience and other universe that I will never forget.
At that time, outside on the street women were not often seen or heard, and the cafes were only populated by men. Yet inside the hammam, it was busy and noisy with womens’ voices. There was laughter and singing, especially with lots of little children running around everywhere. Everything about it made a huge impression on me, coming from Anglo-diasporic rural Canada. I learned that I had internalized my cultural background’s discomfort about the body in a very straightforward and direct way. And I can’t forget the feeling as we left—kind of electric and bright, as if my skin was breathing.
Have you ever bathed in water heated with wood? If so, can you tell us about that experience?
C: Here in Canada we have an abundance of forests, so we are lucky to be able to have wood in our lives, whether it’s a stirring spoon or campfire. Just as your fuel changes the taste of the food you eat—like a charcoal barbeque or a microwave—the wood changes the water we drink and bathe in.
When I lived in Japan, I had the opportunity to soak in some amazing wooden tubs. The way the water was transformed by that material exchange was immediately noticeable. It’s a very organic feeling, and much closer to swimming in a pond than lying in a fiberglass tub.
In your book you address different cultures and their unique connections and practices in bathing. Which, if any, resonates with you more than others?
C: What excites me is the connectedness of these different cultural practices around the world. We could all benefit from learning more traditions from our ancestors and from our neighbours, and also to recognize how mutable things are. Bathing cultures aren’t fixed, but places where the rules are always being challenged.
I think that public bathing spaces are designated areas of public life that serve the purpose of testing things out. It’s here that we explore political, social, and material values—sometimes literally fighting them out, as we see in histories like the Wade Ins on American beaches in the 1960s, an important element of the struggle for civil rights. It extends to questions of who can wear what in the pool, and who can swim next to whom or change next to whom.
Where in North America do you think has the best (or oldest or deepest) bathing culture?
C: North America has experienced so many violent ruptures and the continuities of indigenous bathing cultures were intentionally broken by colonization in modern-day Mexico City as much as in northern BC. Now we are all called upon to witness this violence and speak of it, and we all can start to integrate these histories into our daily understanding of where we are and what we might be able to create together here—this includes bathing cultures.
I think today there is a lot of energy in rebuilding and reconnecting to Indigenous bathing traditions such as Temezcal and Sweat Lodge. The visibility they created helped Indigenous communities reassert their right to practice their bathing culture. We have tremendous natural bathing spaces across North America, and we can all work to protect our great waters together for our enjoyment and regeneration.
In your book you explore the relationship between bathing and environment (as in architecture/landscape) in an unprecedented and exciting way. What attributes or features or factors do you think create the best bathing experience?
C: One thing that seems to make for great bathing experiences is people tuning into their environment and caring about the place they find themselves, where we don’t hold back on youthful feelings of pure delight.
This kind of joy in being alive, in elemental things, light and shadow, or heat and cold, we let ourselves play in making great baths. It’s a kind of celebration. I notice when children are splashing in a puddle they get so much pleasure from it, and adults sometimes need to reconnect to that feeling. This is part of great bathing experiences I recall.
Can you paint us a picture of your dream bathing ritual? Anything goes here, no rules apply!
C: My dream bathing ritual is like a journey or an adventure. I want to experience vast and powerful landscapes like great waterfalls, ocean waves, deep dark forests, rushing rivers, and all of the fantastic natural water forms that I’ve ever experienced. . . except I need to be held safely. I want to feel a sense of contact with extra-human presence and power of land.
Water, air, organic plants, and inorganic rocks would speak in some way so I can hear them through my senses. Then those intensities of experience need to alternate with quiet relaxing times. In the quiet I can talk with people; there should be people I know and also people I have just met.