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The Open Bathroom

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Most one-bedroom apartments have their entrance between the kitchen and the bathroom. The kitchen can be closed, semi-closed/open or closed but there’s less distinction between the hallway and the kitchen when the apartment is small.

The kitchen and entrance hallway occupy the same space. Typically, there’s a closest and bathroom entrance the other side of this passageway people must use to get to the living space that’s now as large as it ever will be.

The same functions could be arranged along a corridor but less than half the space remains as living space

– a decision that leads to sleeping, sofa-sitting and dining being separated in time. 

Entering an apartment between the kitchen and bathroom is the same arrangement as a standard hotel room, the only difference being the apartment has minimal cooking facilities whereas the hotel has closet space. The closet has to find somewhere else.

The Forgotten Function was about how adding a bit of additional space for no purpose other than to access other spaces can make the whole thing work better but this is a general truth only when multiple spaces are linked. Different and strange things begin to happen when multiple things are linked within the one space. Rooms stop being rooms and circulation is no longer about getting to different rooms but about getting to and using different items and objects within the room. Every item of furniture, whether fixed or not, needs a minimum amount of space provided in order to use that item and this space is called the activity space. Here’s the activity space for some sanitary ware and a domestic oven. It’s standard school stuff.

When planning a room, it’s good practice to overlap these activity spaces as much as possible as they can’t be done away with. Overlapping them leaves maximum space for where it might be better used and appreciated. With hotel rooms, this was all understood long ago. Here’s the smallest possible bathroom with a full-size bath.

Although compacted to the extreme, Renzo Piano’s Diogene microhouse maintains the same links and sequence as the studio apartment with its entry hall, bathroom entrance and kitchen activity space all being the same tiny patch of space.

The dimensions of this arrangement may vary but the arrangement itself is beginning to show signs of breaking down. The apartment in this next photograph [1] is probably 6m x 4m. The 120° wide-angle photograph is taken looking left from immediately in front of the entrance. Unusually, the activity space to use the bed completely overlaps the activity space to use the kitchen and which is also the corridor to the bathroom (accessed to the left of the chair).

There are two types of space here: the activity space that’s necessary in order to use a room, and the remaining space that’s free to be used however the occupant wants. This apartment also has a hierarchy of activity spaces. The decision has already been made to have activity space on one side of the bed only but how many times in a day does one get into and out of bed? Or make it? It doesn’t require dedicated activity space and so it’s overlapped with the kitchen activity space that’s also the same length.

Horden Cherry Lee’s 2005 Microhouse also combined the kitchen activity space with the bed activity space that also happened to be the table activity space. Some of the planning decisions are very similar to small mobile homes in that the wc activity space is the space for the shower and the space for the entrance. The house is thus entered via the bathroom.

There’s a certain kind of logic to this because, after all, how many times do you enter and leave a house or apartment in the course of a day? An entrance hallway is not high-priority space. This next image is of the ground floor plan of SANAA’s 2008 Okurayama Apartments. Two of the apartments are entered via the bathroom. Wash and go.

I also found this next drawing that shows the bathrooms partitioned from the entrances.

It wouldn’t be the first time one internal layout was produced for notoreity and an another one for saleability.

Le Corbusier’s name would feature prominently in a history of domestic sanitary ware and its positioning. He did his bit to bring ablutions closer to the bed and, in the case of The Cabanon, the living space. His open bathroom of Villa Savoye never took off and nor did bidets external to bathrooms.

Like me, you probably wondered why the bed in LC’s east-facing Bouglogne-Billancourt apartment is so far off the ground. I’ve read it’s so the view can be appreciated from bed. Perhaps so, but it seems a strange solution when it’s within one’s remit to place the bed closer to the window or make the windows larger. It’s not as if there was a lack of space.

The bed might be placed that far back in the room so the façade glass wall is least obstructed. This explains the bedroom door/cupboard that, when in open position, allows the bidet to be seen from the dining table. [This solves the problem of the bidet not being sufficiently visible from the dining table – at least for Le Corbusier’s tastes.] Given that there’s a light well behind where the bed is, both bed and bathroom could have been arranged to allow an unobstructed wall of glass without the need to invent the door-cupboard. 

Both the 1928 design and the as-built design for Villa Savoye have washbasins in the hallway but, located between the staff quarters and the front door, they’re not for the use of the owners or their guests.

Having washbasins in the hallway is not the Western way, but it’s not that foreign either. Italian hotel rooms often have a washbasin in rooms without a bathroom. The post Architectural Misfit #32: Kazuhiko Namba had this next image of Box House 140. The bathroom will be downstairs and it will have the bath and nothing else and this is the preferred arrangement in Japan. This is not to deny that capsule bathrooms and combined bathrooms exist but washing one’s face or brushing one’s teeth is not something the Japanese would think of doing in the bath-room.

We’re now seeing more glass-walled bathrooms in hotels because someone has realized a 10cm masonry wall can be done without. A one-centimetre glass wall is a 9cm bonus and means the bathroom space can now be appreciated as part of the room when it’s not being used. Or even when it is.

A quick google reveals washbasin in bedroom and bath in bedroom are now a thing. What began in hotel rooms is now on the edge of mainstream. Baths and washbasins feature most, showers less so, and wcs and bidets still not.

This is all very well and Pinterest. I doubt any of it owes anything to Le Corbusier. It’s not all that long ago since people were bathing in the kitchen near the only source of hot water.

What I’m more interested in is what happens when the glass bathroom shrinks as it invariably must if that 9cm is to be taken advantage of. In this hotel room, the shower cubicle is entered via the wc and is a very practical arrangement for exhaust, towels, bathmats and drying. A curtain provides optional privacy for the shower and transluscent glass doors obscure the wc. I’ve not seen better.

The washbasin does the Japanese thing and is now external to the bathroom and its activity space overlapped with the entrance hall/corridor.

The bathroom, what’s left of it, receives natural light but still requires forced ventilation. One solution could be to put it outside and this too is an upmarket feature.

For hotels and apartment dwellers, this means the open bathroom will shift from the corridor wall to the outer wall or the balcony beyond. Win win. The bathroom space gets to be looked at and through as an extension of the room. Views are an advantage if present but natural ventilation is now where it’s needed most.

This inversion owes nothing to SANAA. The Gifu Kitagaya apartment bedrooms have daylight borrowed from the corridor but, bedrooms being bedrooms, this is no huge problem [and, if one is a citation chaser, one can see traces of an engawa). We can see the Japanese washbasin in the corridor yet making a Western-style conceptual group but it’s not just about having something to look at when brushing one’s teeth. Unless the doors are open, the wc and bathroom are miserable places to be.

• • •

  1. See here for more photographs:

• • •

Iago in Mexico City emailed to say what I was getting at reminded him of the following 1984 project by Yves Lion. I’m not surprised. Lion’s preference for open access with two apartments per stairwell and landing is also eerie. [c.f. The Domino’s House]

“The housing presented here has a certain passive quality at its core, while all of the energy, all of the capacity to evolve, to embody technological progress, is to be found in the façade. In this way the notion of the façade, of modelling, of good design, the dread of semantic emptiness were all fused together.”

Thanks again Iago, and also for not letting this idea die.

• • •

I get the feeling Yves Lion didn’t produce proposals for media impact but rather as solutions to particular problems. Here’s one of the layouts of his Logements sociaux à Champs-sur-Marne (1987-1995). You can see the “active terrace” thinking for the kitchen, and also for the central room that seems to be for a full-time carer or semi-dependent family member.

This next project I found on Pinterest so there’s no more information than this. It’s another embodiment of the same thinking. The grim core lets it down and makes me think this project is probably not one of Lion’s.



  • says:

    I think you’re alluding to it, but I want to reinforce that point anyway. The reason for the raised bed in Corbu’s apartment is of course so that he won’t have to see the bidet when he’s laying in bed. Because he only likes the idea of a bidet as visible furniture, it doesn’t mean he have to look at the thing…

    • Thanks Ingvar, I never knew that, but it doesn’t look like it’d be possible to see the bidet anyway, at least from this photo.

      Like much to do with Le Corbusier, nothing makes sense. The idea of a bidet as visible furniture explains why Le Corbusier might like to see the bidet from the dining table but not the bed whether it’s raised or not. The bed is slightly bizarre. There must have been some inventive piece of furniture in order to climb into that bed but history is silent. Since the apartment faces east, I imagined that the bed was so high so perhaps the morning sun would strike it but history is silent on that too. Since we’re in the realm of conjecture now, there’s more than one occasion one might like to use a bidet but, with one’s pants around one’s ankles, this one’s quite a waddle from the wc. LC may have gotten off on the idea of the bidet not as furniture but as a before-sex and/or after-sex thing. I quite like the large rounded shower with its rounded opening because it probably doesn’t need a shower curtain but I suspect something more Freudian happening with that. One thing is sure – we will never know.

      Cheers, Graham

  • Fascinating read, as always. One small remark, though: I don’t think a wash bassin in a room that’s not a bathroom is a non-Western thing at all. It’s simply an older thing, it’s the way it was before bathrooms became widespread. An intermediate step between having a bowl of water to wash and having an actual bathroom, if you will. I still come across that in cheap hotels in Eastern Europe and it always makes me feel like in a film from the Fifties.

    • You’re right. I remember a hotel room in Venice that had one. The bathroom was up the hall. The bowl of water to wash is something I’ve only seen in Western movie hotel rooms but the evolution you describe seems natural. Just thinking about how these things evolve, have you noticed how widespread en-suites are now? It’s something schoolkids are starting to want. Even family members are less willing to share bathrooms. I’m not sure if it’s a symbol of adulthood or affluence but it results in houses that are lived in like hotels. Graham.

    • Thanks so much Iago – it’s a fantastic project and, eerily, it’s exactly what I’d been getting at. I’m not surprised you thought of it. I particularly like the classic two apartments to one stairwell and elevator access. I shall have to find out more about Yves Lion. In the meantime, I will write a post-script to the post and share the link and thank you again. Graham.