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Reviewed by:
  • Bathroom by Barbara Penner
  • Harvey Molotch (bio)
By Barbara Penner. London: Reaktion Books, 2014. Pp. 336. $23.93.

The bathroom is the only room in the house designated with a euphemism. When found in public, the spaces are no less euphemistically designated. The lack of directness signals special issues concerning the bathroom’s function, its role in conversation, and how it has been dealt with in the history of technology and design. Human capacities for urbanization, public health, and personal dignity hang in the balance.

An authority on all this is Barbara Penner, a uniquely situated faculty member at London’s Bartlett School of Architecture. She has long paid attention to this special room and its component elements. She lays out her intention in the book’s introduction: “I do not intend to consider the bathroom as a discrete and enclosed site.” Instead, she wants us to understand “how the bathroom meets the world outside, how it moves between different sites, scales, and conditions, and how it hooks the human body up to technology, individuals to infrastructure and private to public realms” (p. 9). The book delivers on its promise. Penner takes us from one end of the bathroom to the other, over the course of history through which people have washed themselves and eliminated their wastes. Her accounts travel from public facilities (which virtually all such “rooms” once were) to private domestic spaces. She covers what goes on among aristocrats, who themselves often had nothing so pleasant or convenient as ordinary people enjoy today, as well as the destitute.

As a scholar trained in architectural history, Penner has particular interest in where designers have stood in terms of bathrooms. Most have ignored what actually goes on within them. They have been more interested in shape, color, and surfaces than in the actual human interface. Nor [End Page 787] have they paid consistent attention to different social groups and the way that infrastructure inattentiveness systematically sustains inequalities.

One glaring set of problems, at long last being acknowledged at least in some quarters, are those faced by women. Women have too little space, and a lot of it is wrong, given women’s own physiological needs as well as their disproportionate role in caring for children and the disabled. Along with attention to “universal design” to address problems of those with disabilities, Penner patiently takes up the range of solutions possible for women, including the female urinal (she is not a backer).

Toilets, Penner tells us, are proctologically inferior to the open-pit “Turkish” design. Cleaning with toilet paper, instead of dousing with water (as is common in India, for example), clogs drainage and complicates discharge and treatment. Conventions and entrenched values of Western preference inhibit more beneficial ways of doing things. Amply illustrated, the book is a fascinating show-and-tell of artifact specificity.

Penner delves into the larger ecologies of plumbing, including potentials for re-use of effluent. We thus learn of the earliest applications of night soil to farmers’ fields as well as the most recent eco-friendly technologies from Sweden, from Spain, and from UN-sponsored projects all over the world. Many of the world’s poor still are, in important ways, “unwashed,” with catastrophically high death rates (primarily for children) caused by befoulment from human waste. Progress is slow and halting. As Penner succinctly remarks, “Sanitation has always been an unloved and underfunded cause in comparison to water, its sexier and cleaner companion” (p. 269).

The author allows us to see “ensemble”—a term recognizable from another pioneer of bathroom studies, Elizabeth Shove. Ensemble stands in for the interconnected ways of artifacts with one another, as well as users’ attitudes, histories, and cultural practices. Thanks to Penner’s authoritative treatment we can see the way specifics of appliances operate in conjunction with one another as well as with all manner of (changing) social practices and technological shifts.

Penner largely stays on her empirical tack, with few turns toward theory or literatures in the ANT or STS traditions. But the work will be of keen interest to scholars in these areas because of the wealth of descriptive material it provides and the alertness to...


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pp. 787-788
Launched on MUSE
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