What Do Our Bathrooms Tell Us About Amercian Culture?

Philip Bess teaches in the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture and is the author of Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the SacredCrisis Magazine is running an excerpt from this book in which Bess reflects on multi-bathroom homes, suburbia, Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia, and Tocqueville.  Here is just a small taste:

Bigger and more luxurious bedrooms and bathrooms seem to me just one physical manifestation of that shrinkage of the public realm happening reciprocally and in tandem with America’s true growth industry, the care and tending of the autonomous self. Like the decline of the street and square as active public spaces—and the demise of the alley, the ubiquity of the driveway, the transformation of the garage door into the front door, the demise of uninterrupted curbs on residential blocks, the relocation of domestic life to yards and family rooms at the rear of the house, and the creation of complex suburban roofs apparently intended to simulate small villages—the growing number and importance of domestic bathrooms and bedroom suites indicates yet another way we materialize in our built environment our culture’s turn from the civic to the private.

This turn to the private would have dismayed but not surprised Alexis de Tocqueville. Indeed, Tocqueville recognized individualism as a peculiarly democratic proclivity. His 1840 characterization of individualism (“a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to . . . draw apart with his family and friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself”) goes far toward describing a social reality that has taken physical form in the American suburb.

One thought on “What Do Our Bathrooms Tell Us About Amercian Culture?

  1. I have not read Bess's book, though I'll add it to my list because it sounds fascinating. Thanks for bringing it up, John.

    I am generally loathe to blame McMansions and multi-bathroom houses on the insidious power of individualism. Indeed, the explanation points to the exact opposite motivator, perversely enough.

    Federal government policy since the New Deal and especially following WWII has incentivized owning bigger and better houses. Mortgage interest is deductible, subsidies for car transportation makes suburbanization cheaper, managed inflation makes savings less attractive. For the average middle class American, it simply makes financial sense to shelter income in as large of a house as one can afford.

    That's not individualism; that's the logical outgrowth of state paternalism.


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