Seductive Doom

The architecture of public baths is about statecraft as much as wellness

My first memory of Taiwan is of scalding my skin in the hot springs in Hell Valley, a place where an oceanic trench and a volcanic system have created uniquely beneficial pools. I watched my skin pink up and pressed white spots into it as the shock of the heat turned soothing and the air smelled heavy with sulfur. The springs in Beitou all feed from boiling water connected to the Tatun Volcano group, which frame the hotels and springs below. I remember, when  told that the water I’d stepped into was volcanic, I became too afraid to move — men have been boiled alive by water from this source; locals used to boil eggs in these pools before it was outlawed, yet there we were, swimming in it and staring at a dormant volcano. But then, adjusting, I slid slowly further into the water. I’ll never forget how I felt because it feels so familiar now as an adult: It was the first time I felt seductive doom.

Those hot springs in Hell Valley, I later discovered, have that sensation built into its history. The architectural marvels are a product of Japanese colonization, developed to comfort colonizers and remind everyone else that the land was for the Japanese to use. The first hot spring in Taiwan was established in 1896 by Hirita Gengo, a Japanese businessman, shortly after Japan began its 50-year occupation of the island. It was expanded for the arrival of Japan’s Prince Hirohito in 1923 to make the springs the largest baths in his empire. Another hot spring just up the road was also a center for political power for the rest and restoration of occupying forces. Now a museum, it was first a hotel taken over by the Japanese military to house soldiers on their way to war. Submarine operators were sent there before their deployment to the Pacific theater and pilots were sent before their final flights as kamikazes in both the Sino-Japanese wars and World War II. The letters they left behind suggest that they did not believe their sacrifices would win the war, but they hoped their deaths would help immortalize their ideals. They took the water to prepare for death.

Water is transformative, a medium of both sacred conversion and political indoctrination, and it flows easily between both

When I think of those soldiers bathing in that water only a few decades before I did, I think of the river Styx. The mythological channel between life and death carried departed souls to the underworld and gave Achilles the strength of an immortal everywhere it touched him, which of course was every place but one. These examples show that water is transformative, a medium of both sacred conversion and political indoctrination, and it flows easily between both. People rely on water not only for literal survival but also to help establish cultural significance, imperial domination. Immersion doesn’t just transform your body or heal ailments; it presages the afterlife.

“Spatial forms or distance,” wrote Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception, “are not so much relations between different points in objective space as they are relations between these points and a central perspective — the body.” Water is such a bridge of relation, a medium that relates us to both the symbolic sacred and the state that demands our transformation. The body is just where we begin. Wellness spaces shape their transformation. Sara Ahmed writes in Queer Phenomenology that “spaces are not exterior to bodies; instead, spaces are like a second skin that unfolds in the folds of the body.” Water’s the catalyst, power the source.

Bath houses, spas, and springs are some of the longest-standing examples of architecture as petrified political power. Within them, that power is harnessed as the catalyst of bodily transformation, further testifying to itself. Bath houses represented the wealth and cultural legacy of a healthy civilization. They’re the nexus of health and wellness for a community. It is no surprise that they were some of the first places destroyed in coups.

Ancient Greek and Roman baths were cities within cities and centers of cultural legacy and production. Their first altars and baths were built on places they believed were sacred springs — to honor their gods, of course, but also in hopes that these gods would make those who visited them healthier. This relay of power was ultimately a demonstration of the state’s efficiency.

Hospitals were attached to community springs, and during militarization troops were stationed near springs to aid with the soldiers’ recoveries. Platoons pooled their funds to buy dedications to gods, which were etched onto the marbled columns at Bath, England. The pagans who bathed in those springs beforehand did much the same. They buried curse tablets dedicated to Sulis, their god of wisdom and healing, who was adopted into Roman myth as Minerva, the goddess of medicine, magic, and war. Both goddesses oversaw the waters at Bath; one of the spring’s previous names was Minerva’s Water.

Bath houses were the nexus of health and wellness for a community. It is no surprise they were some of the first places destroyed in coups

Mosques and hammams also have a symbiotic connection, connecting hygiene and wellness practices to piety. When the Crusaders invaded Damascus, the hammam became a point of socialization where wellness rituals were shared among opposing forces. Knights would use the hammams alongside the communities they were occupying. The Crusader castles along the Syrian coast all have hammams, including those of the famed Assassins at their Al-Kahf Castle: nearly overgrown with plants following the fortress’s destruction. Given Iran’s rich history of invaders, the architecture of its hammams reflects centuries of power struggles. The Crusaders considered hammam-building a sign of community philanthropy and cultural assimilation, and the Arabs considered preserving mosques and hammams a sign of indomitable power in the face of colonization.

These sites don’t merely link wellness and statecraft through architecture and myth. Some wellness practices, like the procedures typified by isolation tanks and sound baths, are wielded as both therapeutic treatments and military interrogation techniques. Architects of meditation spaces sometimes bring in audio engineers to balance the environment; too quiet a room makes visitors uncomfortable, while a white noise unique to the room prevents the solitude from feeling restrictive. Floatation tanks in spas come with glowing exit/assistance lights regardless of how pitch black they become, so you’re allowed to have a safe exit if it ever starts to disturb you. This is in contrast to Guantánamo Bay and other black sites, where solitary confinement and sensory deprivation are used to turn the body against itself. You can be at peace alone in a room with no windows or in an uncomfortable pose or temperature if you’re free to release from them as you please. Both uses of isolation as an embodied exception to the rule are potentially transformative.

Wellness spaces are meant to create something “intimate and choreographed,” with each space programmed for an emotional impact. Survivors of torture experience this emotional impact’s inverse

Wellness spaces are meant to bring you in tune with your own body in a way that feels restorative and provides a sense of safety and ease. Therapeutic design in wellness spaces uses a lot of the same tropes: therapy lights with perfect horizon lines of shadow for distracted meditators, plenty of storage to prevent any clutter at all, walls that blend into the ceiling with no harsh lines, and heated, spring-reinforced floors. In the Scandinave Spa Vieux-Montréal, designed by the architectural firm Saucier + Perrotte, the surfaces are all slightly angled and undulate: floors, walls, ceilings. Depressions in the floor become pools, benches are cantilevered, and steam baths are placed on pedestals, directing you as you progress through the bathing ritual. According to architect Dwayne MacEwen, who has designed spas and hotels, wellness spaces are meant to create something “intimate and choreographed,” with a careful consideration of the social and the non-social, and each space is programmed for an emotional impact.

Survivors of torture experience this emotional impact’s inverse — not a choreographed experience of individualized care but a deindividualization that has been described by academic E. Valentine Daniels as “therapeutic terror.” This is when a person is pushed past their capability to experience their body and endure aftershocks of specific pain. They are turned against themselves — irrevocably, violently transformed.

Fascists love architecture like that of Roman bath houses because they’re cathedrals of flesh, designed with Vitruvian body proportions in mind. Vitruvian proportions are exemplified by that drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, based on notes by the architect Vitruvius. They suppose the human is in harmony with the world, that man is based in God’s image, and that our bodies’ natural harmony should also be employed in buildings. It standardizes the requirements of beauty in both bodies and buildings. Architects used these ratios to build proportional buildings in antiquity, including bath houses, but they’re still used today in some of our most epic feats of design, like Grand Central Station. Grand Central was based on the ruins of the Caracalla Baths in Rome, a ruin that Mussolini loved dearly. He wanted to host the Olympic Games in the 1940s upon their bones. These bath houses, beautifully designed, reflect their creators’ egos and what it means to have power and success in the world. They do so perhaps more effectively than the more obvious monuments because they extend their legacies less explicitly. The London Museum of Design’s director, Deyan Sudjic, refers to this particular “edifice complex,” writing thattrying to make sense of the world without acknowledging architecture’s psychological impact on it is to miss a fundamental aspect of its nature. To do so would be like ignoring the impact of warfare on the history of technology.” He wasn’t speaking about the architecture of spas, but many of his examples of political aesthetic mention wellness spaces like hammams and holy pools.

Architects whose work includes no Romanesque columns or sound baths still base their work on the fantasies of both mythology and bodily transformation. Consider the projects of Madeline Gins and Shusaku Arakawa, and their concept of “procedural architecture,” exemplified in their book Architectural Body and their foundation Architecture Against Death. Gins and Arakawa wanted to create buildings that kept people from dying, and they too had “decided not to die.” They both died from terminal illnesses they kept private for most of their lives, before most of their designs could be executed. They created architecture meant to trigger states the human body must reach to transform, with the hope of guiding bodies toward immortality. The premise of their work was the question: “How do people understand the relationship between their bodies and their surroundings, and how can that relationship be reimagined?”

Some of their proposals were exorbitantly expensive and only a fraction came to fruition — undulating floors and walls you had to slide through while moving on a downward slope. Their work is considered impractical and best as theory now, but what they were trying to do is not much different from what other architects attempt. If other architects create buildings around the way bodies need to use them, Gins and Arakawa demanded you interact with the building with your body to transform yourself. The only radical difference lies in how they executed their quest for transformation. Their work simply wasn’t comfortable, and their designs were as physically rigorous as the designs they were constructed to respond to.

Madeline Gins’s last project after Arakawa’s death was a commission for a healing center in the Peloponnese, based on the Sanctuary of Asclepius, a cluster of bath houses where ancient Greeks believed they could be healed of illness. Gins named her reinterpretation the Reversible Destiny Healing Fun House. Unfortunately, the client died before it was built.

Gins and Arakawa’s proposal that architecture should be a tool of wellness is an inheritance of our cultural love of sacred sites and our hope that some sort of power can transform us if we only know how to use it. Wellness as a protective shell against death is a universal experience. It is also, unfortunately, a medium that can transport you straight to it.

Arabelle Sicardi writes about beauty, fashion, and power. Their work can be found in Allure, Teen Vogue, Racked, Hazlitt, and elsewhere.