Monday, August 23, 2010

The drawings that I've begun to work on again. Elevation to come.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Some Thoughts on Context

One of the important issues that Patrick and I discussed today is the challenge of the project to connect back to the city and its immediate surroundings besides the railway. I took some time to think about this idea. While I am / was hesitant at first to try and focus on externalizing the project - as the nature of a bathhouse is inherently a very internal programme - I realized that there is a very appropriate activity which takes place around the site to begin to exploit. In the 1990's the area surrounding the CN Wellington was redeveloped into a leisure circuit upon which people run, job, walk, cycle, rollerskate, etc. What happens when people do these various types of exercise? A number of things, actually.

1. They sweat. What do people do when they are sweaty? Most people shower.
2. They become thirsty. People usually replenish themselves when they become thirsty.
3. They rest or relax afterwards.

I don't want to get too far ahead of myself with this. But I believe that this is a very interesting and appropriate avenue to investigate as it would really tie the history of the site (a gay cruising area) together with the existing context (a leisure area).

Some restrictions could come out of this. How would I negotiate between the gay bath and a shower room for exercisers? Between a rest area for the two users? The exercisers would also need a place to store their bicycles, roller-blades, and potentially their valuables while they shower or relax.


After speaking with Patrick, we've agreed that the process needs to evolve from simply an interpretation or re-interpretation of the narrative into a type of consequential process involving a lot of re-editing. The narrative will remain as my starting point and the notion of the gay bathhouse will be the initial programme. But inevitably the building will have to take on a life of its own, by reaching out to the city and weaving it together with the idea of the bath. This will happen through the gradual layering of both the existing narrative with my own interjections regarding the site and the city. The idea is to force myself to have to negotiate between the gay bathhouse and other contextual issues (for example a public bath).

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

New Wellington Baths - Narrative

This is the first draft, or clipping, for my narrative. As a straight person, I am choosing to approach the notion of the gay bathhouse through a montage of research and found written accounts of experiences in different bathhouses. My starting point is a narrative by Ira Tattelman entitled Speaking to the Gay Bathhouse: Communicating in Sexually Charged Spaces. He provides a very interesting and vivid narrative walk-through of the New St. Marks on the Lower East Side in New York City. My first copy is essentially verbatim. However, I have injected the story into the existing site (the CN Wellington in Montreal) of which my thesis work is based upon. Therefore, I have altered pieces of the text to address this site. My intention is to gradually develop the text and montage other findings into the narrative. Similar to the work that I began to develop in my first year of Masters, I also intend to use this narrative as the driving force of the project. By following the narrative I am instituting very specific restrictions to which I will be forced to adhere to.

The building is 3 stories tall on the side of the street and 2 stories tall from the side of the train.

Closed off to the rail, the building’s doors are anonymous and its windows have steel shutters. A bronze plaque on the front, placed by the historical society, reminds visitors that the building was once the CN Wellington switching station.

One enters the building by pushing open a solid door and climbing up a marble staircase with dark-tile walls to the first level.

At the landing there is an admission desk and to the right, a café. On one side of the counter, everyone is fully dressed, wearing their street clothes. Coffee, tea, and sandwiches are available. Directly across the counter are men eating and drinking in their towels or nude. The counter stands 3 feet tall and forms a sort of fragile boundary between the dressed and the nude – although their interaction conveys a sense of ease. No one crosses the counter to get to the other side and no one on the clothed side even considers undressing.

At the brass-caged cashier’s desk - retrieved from the Banque de Montréal – the choices include a single room, double room, or locker. Choosing a room gives one a space to call one’s own. A locker provides a space to hang ones clothing; no other private space is guaranteed. A large sign beyond the desk provides the rates – which are typically more than the cost of a movie ticket, but less than a hotel room. In addition to money, the bath asks for two signatures; one for registration and one for valuables, which are placed into the wall of locked safety boxes directly behind the desk. Once registered, one is handed a white towel, a key, and a condom.

A buzzer unlocks the heavy inner security door that separates the space outside from the space inside.

To the left is a long row of double lockers with very little space between. To the right is the café. Around the corner is an orgy room and straight ahead is a black steel staircase leading upstairs.

The materials and colours of the bathhouse are masculine: pine paneling, brown carpet, gray paint, and maroon vinyl. Materials are durable and easy to maintain; they must age gracefully. Sensitivity to light is important to the ambiance of the baths. Illumination is fairly low, the hallways are bathed in shades of pink and red to help everyone look healthy and inviting.

In the New Wellington one finds pointed spatial relations in the building construction. The east wall compares the tight individual rooms of the upper floors to the large collective spaces of the lower floors through the placement of plumbing and interior “wals”; one can contrast and relate the water of the sink and toilet to the water in the swimming pool or whirlpool, or the space of a 4’ x 6.5’ cubicle to the space of a 16’ x 26’ orgy room.

The west wall describes the circulation spaces, a circuit for cruising. The bathhouse invites a continuous flow of traffic repeatedly passing each room, sometimes finding a door open and inviting, sometimes closed to view.

The baths create a theatrical experience. Figures materialize out of the shadows, steam, and long halls. One’s eyes begin to adjust to the blur, distinguishing body outlines and facial profiles. Obstacles, things that come between, accentuate the sensuous and suggestive. Mirrors emphasize indirect contact with the body and flatter the physical culture of urban life; in order to participate, one is required to be on public display. Screens, surfaces, and windows delay direct interaction while piquing one’s interest, coyly adding uncertainty and flirtation to the mix. The relationship between stage, props and actors transform the qualities of camouflage, surveillance and narcissism that have become stereotypes of gay life. Theatre and fantasy offer a multiplicity of interests, a complex set of relationships and an interchangeability of roles.

On the third floor a narrow doorway leads into the red-toned corridors that separate the long array of numbered rooms. The passageways are as cramped and constricted as the cubicles. Each room has a door with a large black number on it. These repetitive units mimic the size and safety of closets. Inside, the room lights are on dimmer switches that allow one to adjust the light to an appropriate brightness or darkness. The furnishings include a hard, raised, minimal platform bed, small table, bit of floor space, sheet and pillow, and hook for hanging street clothes or a towel. A mirror is placed strategically so as to afford both the occupants as well as onlookers glimpses of the inhabiting bodies. In various rooms other strategically placed peep and glory holes and windows begin to create more complex relationships between the cubicles. The rooms, however, are exactly alike. It is the bodies inside that individualize the space.

In the baths, men are everywhere, their towels knotted with intent. They walk around the labyrinth, circling aimlessly, trying to master the organization of corridors as if trapped in a maze. Where the layout is more complex, rambling and confusing, the traffic flow is more interesting and titillating. Men stand against the walls, watching the parade as well as the sequence of opening and closing doors. Others rest in their rooms, looking, lying, or smoking.

When rooms are kept dim, the patrons are hardly perceivable in the shadows; they are mere forms waiting. When a room is bright, the person inside has something he wants to show off. To convert interests into involvements, one can arrange oneself so that what one wants is what is shown. The non-verbal language of the body is one’s guide to the adventures of the baths. By waiting in the room, displaying oneself, one offers oneself up as a spectacle to the men in the hall.

The man in the hallway assembles the repeating frame of doorways and believes he has access to every body behind every frame but he chooses, making a visible statement by blocking traffic in the hallway while waiting for a signal or invitation.

The man in the room takes charge of his domain, setting the stage with lighting, door position, and body placement while waiting for someone to advance, to break the rhythm of bodies passing. Once someone approaches the door, the man in the room maintains the right to accept, reject, invite, or refuse access to the room and to himself.

Once an invitation is accepted, the men quickly disappear behind the door. The closed door signals the room is for occupants only, providing a degree of privacy and exclusivity to their activities. On occasion, the men in the room will leave the door slightly ajar, attracting others to watch over the activity or join in.

Downstairs, just below ground level, are the brightest rooms in the building, the wet area, which includes communal shower, sauna, steam room, and an open area containing a plunge pool and hot tub. Wooden benches line the wall where one can rest, start up a conversation, or take in the view of traffic. This floor invites a variety of people to congregate.

Across from the pool are large mirrors lining the wood-planked wall. The visual character of the mirrors allows one to look and be looked at. There is a never-ending display of fronts and backs, coupling and uncouplings, and the sometimes hard-to-decipher rules of attraction. In this space, the barriers between people seem to break down; the spectator and spectacle merge.

In the steam room, moisture clouds enshroud tiled benches. Above is a pitched metal ceiling and on the wall is a shower head spewing cold water only. When the room gets too hazy to see, the bathhouse conflates looking and touching. Inhabitants believe that everything seen can be touched, but sometimes, in the steam or orgy rooms, one can only see by touching. In the darkened spaces, with bodies made slick by the mist, the imagination is enhanced.

The dormitory or orgy room is on the 2nd floor of the New Wellington. While the lack of lighting makes the bodies indistinct, the contours of the room slowly come into view. It is furnished with an expanse of mattresses on two levels, like bunk beds (*mezzanine*). In the orgy room, one finds people standing and sitting as well as kneeling, lying down, leaning, and crouching.

If the baths have a hierarchical organization, then the water area is the life-giving force at the base. The rooms are the limbs stretching up to the top. The orgy room, however, is at the center. Here, the nude body is inscribed exclusively with sexual desire.

The desire for another is also a desire for oneself. If the body creates the baths, then the baths create the body. The bathhouse brings people into contact with themselves and puts them into the position of the other.
Also on the first floor is a darkened lounge. Black vinyl cushioned banquettes line three walls with a table at the center. It is a den to be retreated to for rest. While one’s presence in baths indicates an availability, displays of sexual expression are not permitted everywhere. Sex generally does not occur in the open hallways or TV lounges, which are places for recuperation. Sometimes, these common areas include publications, local literature, and vending machines. At the New Wellington, little square footage is devoted to this unprofitable space.

When it is time to get dressed, one feels constricted. At the door, one leaves one’s towel and signs the receipt for one’s valuables. Glancing back, the building looks deserted, even though it never closes. Upstairs, moving through the hallway, an attendant picks up used towels, cleans an ashtray, changes a bed sheet. The laundry room is constantly in motion, cleaning the uniform for another visitor. Over the loudspeaker, a voice announces the room numbers for those whose time is up.