Touring the Toilets of Le Corbusier

CC BY 2.0. The famous sink in the hall at the Villa Savoye/ Lloyd Alter

This sink in the hall of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye has been a fixture on TreeHugger for years. I have been a bit obsessed with it, and even put the sink in the hall in my own house. I was recently in France and finally saw it, and spent some time obsessing over the toilets and bathrooms designed by Le Corbusier.

Bathroom in the Villa Savoye

Bathroom in the Villa Savoye/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

A Brief History of French Hygiene

When you look at photos of the bathroom in Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye, you have to also think about life in France at the time it was designed and built. According to Steven Zdatny, writing about The French Hygiene Offensive of the 1950s, personal cleanliness was not exactly a priority at the time. In fact, it was frowned upon.

Alongside the sheer impracticality of keeping clean and the folk wisdom emphasizing the prophylactic power of dirt, the shame attached to naked bodies deterred their comprehensive washing. “I am over sixty-eight and never have I washed there!” protested one woman who found herself in hospital and threatened with a bath. Educational manuals warned that warm baths would encourage pupils to “think evil thoughts”.

Even when Pasteur and Koch figured out that germs caused disease, the French resisted cleaning up. As late as 1946, only 11 percent of French apartments had a bathroom and less than one percent had a shower.

Bedroom and bath in Le Corbusier's apartment

© Bedroom and bath in Le Corbusier's apartment/ Ouvre Complet

Le Corbusier's Innovative Bathroom Designs

This is why these bathrooms designed by Le Corbusier are so interesting; he was obsessed with cleanliness. His own apartment, designed in 1934, was more extreme than almost anything you would see today, essentially with his and hers zones, with the bathroom essentially being part of the bedroom itself.

Yvonne's bathroom

Yvonne's bathroom/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

At Yvonne's end of the room, she had a deep bathtub, her own sink and dressing table and a bidet. According to historian Tim Benton, she hated the bidet sticking out there and crocheted a cover for it. According to Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley, writing in PIN-UP,

The bidet was also a major polemical device in Le Corbusier’s domestic architecture. He always placed it on view, challenging the prevailing codes of the day and arousing charges of immorality.

This was a theme in many of his buildings. Colomina and Wigley continue:

Yvonne's bidet in the middle of the bedroom

Yvonne didn't like that bidet/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In his own apartment (Paris, 1934), he put the bidet in the middle of the space, apparently embarrassing even his wife, Yvonne, who used to cover it with a tea towel when they had visitors. Le Corbusier considered the toilet “one of the most beautiful objects industry has produced.” In his little Cabanon in the south of France (Roquebrune, 1951), he left the toilet open to the space, with little holes in the walls on either side for cross ventilation. In the Villa Savoye (Poissy, 1931), his most famous house, the first thing you see when you enter is a plumbing fixture, a white sink positioned at the beginning of the promenade architecturale like a work of art in a museum. And the most elaborate space in the house is the bathroom, with its sunken bathtub and built-in chaise longue in blue tiles like a sensuous body in the space, or the space itself becoming a sensual body. The bathroom is not really a room; it is open to the rest of the house thereby sexualizing the whole internal landscape.

Corb's shaving sink

Corb's shaving sink/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Le Corbusier had his own shaving sink and a very large walk-in shower stall. As in almost all of the bathrooms we saw from the period, the actual toilet is jammed into a small dark separate enclosure, something that you didn't want to see or think about.

Yvonne's tub and sink

Yvonne's tub and sink/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The remarkable thing is how different this all was from French culture in general. They thought dirt was good for you, and that body odours were part of one's sexual allure. Zdatny writes:

Census figures, along with the practices revealed in the 1975 survey of the French “as they are,” make this abundantly clear. Lynn Payer’s penetrating study of the differences between medical cultures further illustrates the distance that continued to separate American notions of propriety from French ones. The French, she observes, have a greater appreciation of dirt’s shielding qualities. Their focus on “shoring up the terrain”— that is, strengthening the body generally as a barrier to disease— means that “the French see a little bit of dirt not as the enemy, but as being good for the terrain and worth cultivating.” Sensibilities in France also remained more tolerant of natural body odors.

According to Zdatny, as late as 1988, the French used half as much soap as the English, half as much toothpaste as the Swiss. It wasn't until 2004 that a "housing survey showed that 98 percent of French homes had a bath or shower, more or less even with Europe’s cleanest households, in Sweden and the Netherlands."

Sink for washing in the Cabanon

Sink for washing in the Cabanon/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

That's why Corb's bathrooms were so remarkable and ahead of their time. Sinks that are in your face, right in every bedroom, encouraging you to wash your hands. Separate stall showers, when nobody was building showers. Toilets separate in their own rooms, which is where they should be for health and ventilation reasons. There are still many lessons to be learned from Le Corbusier.