Bathtubs Can Be Ageist, Ableist, and Wasteful

Architects should think about comfort and sustainability, as well as aesthetics.

face a face tub
Face a Face Tub by Jean Nouvel.

Agape

Whenever I teach my Sustainable Design class at Toronto Metropolitan University, I spend a lot of time in the bathroom. It is fundamentally a demonstration of how not to design a system, where we flush away useful nutrients with drinking water, have a room that usually has terrible air quality, or feature finishes and the fixtures that injure thousands of people every year through slips and falls. According to a 2012 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "For all ages, the most hazardous activities were bathing, showering, or getting out of the tub or shower."

We have also complained about how much water and energy baths use compared to showers. It’s one reason designers shape the tub around the body and use materials that retain a bit of heat, instead of boxes made of marble.

Tub and sink
Tub and sink by Jean Nouvel.

Agape

And then we have this new tub by the talented Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning French architect Jean Nouvel, the “Face à Face" designed for the Italian bath fixture company Agape. My late interior designer mom used to say Frank Lloyd Wright was great at buildings but should never have done furniture, and I would note that perhaps Nouvel should have stayed out of the bathroom.

He describes his tub in a press release:

“In the interiors of my architecture, the bathroom is a very important space. The placement of the tub is even more so. Even in the most complicated setups, you should leave it free-standing, like a ship at sea. A spot where the light comes in, near a window with a view of the sky, the city, and the landscape.” 

Agape claims, "Extremely precise design and careful attention to the proper angle of each surface contribute to the bathtub becoming a comfortable nest where you can sit, lie down, read, and relax, like a tribute to Jacques-Louis David’s iconic painting, The Death of Marat."

Death of Marat
Death of Marat.

Jacques-Louis David / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons License

What an allusion! On top of thin walls you can't sit on, a slippery marble flat bottom, no contouring or ergonomics, free-standing so there are no grab bars, just a marble box with a sloped back, you can imagine yourself getting having the same fate of Marat.

Standing with dog
Standing in tub with dog.

Agape

As noted previously in posts asking why bathtubs are so bad, design consultant Alexander Kira had something to say in his 1976 book "The Bathroom": "The first and most obvious (and also the most ignored) criterion is that the user be able to lie back and stretch out comfortably....most modern baths are totally inadequate in these respects."

Kira noted the bath is about relaxation and not about cleanliness because you don't actually get very clean in a tub; you just soak in your own dirt. That's why the Japanese clean themselves before they get into the tub, use it to relax, and share the water with their family because it's still basically clean. One could argue it's less wasteful to share clean water as a group versus an individual.

"It is probably fair to say that the only substantive reason for taking a tub bath (other than pure personal idiosyncrasy) is to 'relax', and yet it is precisely this that the vast majority of tubs have not permitted the user to do, particularly in the U.S."
Sink design
Sink by Jean Nouvel.

Agape

Nouvel should read Kira, who had something to say about sinks as well. Kira would be appalled by this design. I have a square sink that is a nightmare to keep clean—everything gets into the corners. This one is designed with sharp right angles and like the tub, will be impossible to clean.

Architecture critic Sigfried Giedion wrote in "Mechanization Takes Command":

"The bath and its purpose have held different meanings for different ages. The manner in which a civilization integrates bathing within its life, as well as the type of bathing it prefers, yields searching insight into the inner nature of the period... The role that bathing plays within a culture reveals the culture's attitude toward human relaxation."
Agape in black

Agape

What insight can we take from Nouvel's bathtub designs? Designers in the 21st century go for style over substance; are ageist and ableist, designed only for fit people that can get in and out of this thing; and they really don't understand what bathing even is. But in this day and age, amidst a climate crisis, it's a missed opportunity to not add water consumption into the equation.

View Article Sources
  1. "Nonfatal Bathroom Injuries Among Persons Aged > 15 Years — United States, 2008." Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 Jun. 2011.

  2. "Agape's New Architectural Bathtub and Washbasins by Jean Nouvel Design: 'Face à Face,'" Agape, 31 May 2022. Press release.

  3. Kira, Alexander. "The Bathroom." The Viking Press, 1976.

  4. Giedion, Sigfried. "Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History." University of Minnesota Press, 2014.