bathing in public

yale school of architecture

...the public bath presents a prototype of grand, secular,
and public infrastructure that echoes meaningfully
in our current state of urban division.

The Roman Bath manifests a unique typology of public infrastructure never since repeated in its social and spatial diversity. By architecturalizing the confluence of civic necessity (bathing), intellectual resource (library), recreational gathering (gardens), athletic training (palaestra) and commercial opportunity (shops), the bath produces an unparalleled architecture of gathering.

The character of that gathering is then defined by, or produced through, a specific social order of both egalitarian mixture (rich + poor) and biologic/temporal separation (women AM + men PM). All of it manifested in the grand image of an emperor seeking to establish his preeminence through architectural demonstration (scale of Caracalla).

The Roman genius here is not the specific invention of any one architectural or social type. Indeed, all of its constituent parts conceptually predate the bath complexes and exist spatially independent of them. (Public bathing is a natural act, often rooted in naturally occurring thermal environments, to which the Romans have no claim. Their ingenuity in this respect is primarily in their accumulation of water [aqueducts] and creation of heat [floor plenum] where they did not exist naturally.) Instead, it is the Roman invention of the bath complex, and the social structures that produced and enabled it, that  ripple outward through time, often in only sporadic and piecemeal fashion.

To access it more fully, and perhaps uncover a more productive and relevant understanding, this paper will look at its legacy through the lens of 20th century New York City. There, the baths are manifest architecturally in the ghost of Penn Station, conceptually, in the Downtown Athletic Club, urbanistically, in the New Deal creation of public swimming facilities for the rich and poor alike that ultimately fostered de-facto segregation, and socio-politically, in the need for public spaces of gathering. New York, in this way, demonstrates an urban fragmentation of the complex, in space and time, that is worth collaging.

This essay, then, will seek to understand the implications of bathing together in the city by juxtaposing the purity of the Ancient Roman type against the fragmentation of the contemporary New York City types, in the hopes of projecting forward.


Bathing was paramount in the social and urban infrastructure of the Roman city, anchoring the flows of daily public life and articulating the presence of its evolving built fabric. Rome was a city of bathers, bathing in baths, built by emperors, who bathed in the same baths they built. Its public baths were omnipresent and egalitarian throughout the entire empire, providing to nearly all of its people (all, according to some accounts) hygeine and recreation at reasonable, if any, cost. The bath was a gift of the city that equalized, if only while within its walls, its diverse and tumultuous public. In the only calderium, rich and poor swam stark, laid bare their material stature, nude in their humanity.

Figure 1: Reconstruction Drawing of Caracalla Frigidarium by Viollet-le-Duc

At least for most men -- indeed, the same nudity that equalizes too stokes natural desire. Many baths, despite their egalitarian access, divided their days into gendered hours: women and children in the morning, and men in the afternoon and evening. Others openly encouraged sexuality, as is beautifully depicted in the 1899 painting by Alma-Tadema (an anti-Victorian attempt to depict female nudity). Nudity inevitably begets sexuality, and all that comes with it (as we will see in early 20th century America). For the Romans, it was not a problem, and perhaps a delight.

Figure 2: 1899 Paintings of Caracalla by Alma Taldema

Indeed, the baths grew to do much more. The water was simply the spring, the lifeblood of its enveloping social mechanism. Surrounding the imperial baths were precincts of physical and intellectual recreation, sewn together by verdent gardens and topiary, equally as public as the water delivering them: sporting grounds, great stoas, libraries, lecture halls, and on. These magnificent bath complexes became the social and intellectual epicenter of Roman life, and “embodied the ideal Roman way of urban living” (Yegül 2).

Furthermore, despite clear segregation in many other public institutions for entertainment, “including the theater, the amphitheater, the stadium, and the circus, where seats or blocks of seats were formally and rigidly reserved for certain classes or groups, the same groups mentioned in ther benefactions charters appear to have mixed in public baths without restrictions… There is even a strong indications that slaves were included in this open policy: they could attend public baths along with freeborn citizens” (Yegül 35-36). In this way, the bath defied otherwise enforced social norms of segregation and oppresion and permitted a unique condition of urban mixture. Something in its political composition granted it an anomolous state of suspension. Within it, the world was altered. A former slave might chance an effort reading a book next to the dozing emperor enjoying a leisurly demonstration of beneveloence, together naked.

It is perhaps within the oft presence of emperors in baths that we might find its specific particularity. The imperial emperors eternally sought to prove their divine ordinance to rule, be it through genetic relation to Apollo or military genius. Being Roman, their primary medium of proof was the city, constructing monumental structures in honor of their divinity. Unlike the imperial Fora, which were urbanistically reduntant and ultimately self-involved, the imperial baths demonstrated sovereignty through monumental generosity. Their primary political agenda was the happiness of their people. In a rare moment, a ruler’s political ambitions aligned with the health and wellbeing of all its citizens, equally.

[Agrippa] was no less in peace than in war; by his many victories he raised his Sovereign to that height of power which he possessed, and afterwards promoted his endeavors of securing the favor and affections of the people, by contributing to their ease and convenience, and by augmenting the splendor of the city.

By his will he bequeathed his Gardens, and the Baths which went by his name, to the Roman people, and appropriated particular estates to their support, that the building might be attended with no expense to the public.  (Cameron 43)

A fulfilled emperor produced in lasting image of his proven sovereignty public extravagance. He believed the city should be splendorous for all its people. And more did afterwards — imperial baths proliferating across centuries.

Conceived at the intertwining of natural social gathering and unbounded political interest in the urban public good, the imperial bath marks a unique architectural type in history: secular public buildings of grandeur built for the use of all people.


There is much in the physical form . The first bath complex of significance arose through the hand of Agrippa in 33 BC, as a demonstration of his political sovereignty and will. As Cameron describes in The Baths of the Romans, Agrippa built the immense complex, which includes baths, gardens, and an artifical lake, as a contribution to both the beauty of the city and the lives of its inhabitants. The complex was grand as it was public.


Figure 3: Reconstruction of the Baths of Agrippa

Following Agrippa, the bath complex proliferated in Rome, as each emperor sought an invidual mark through their own imperial creations. Most notable are the baths of Titus, Trajan, Caracalla, Diocletian, and Constantine (all outlined in Cameron’s seminal volume). In particular Roman fashion, each of these complexes fulfilled a unique architectural typology of local invention. Though they differ slightly in articulation and reaction to context, to look at one is to look, in some ways, at them all. As such, I will employ the Baths of Caracalla, built in 217 AD and considered the most magnificent, as the prototypical bath for analysis.


Figure 4: Baths of Trajan, Caracalla, Titus

Caracalla sits impressively at the northern terminus of the Appian way (in the south of Rome), occupying a site of over 40 acres and standing with a peak height of 144 feet. Architecturally, it occupies the entire site by forming an enclosed precinct: a thin programmed edge surrounds a free standing building at the center (at no point connected to the edge). The central building houses spaces for bodily health—including the baths, two palaestra, a natatorium, and support programs—while the edge provides space for the mind—libraries, lecture halls, a stadium and gathering spaces. Between the two are recreational gardens that enable their mixture. Together, these spaces accumulate into an articulated spatial medley of public recreation for all.

Mediating the threshold between bath the city is a shift in grade that holds shops and stores. In this way, the complex is holistically urban: producing a microcosmic urbanity within itself, but remaining integral to the city fabric surrounding it…no building is too great to be a good citizen.

Figure 5: Plan Reconstruction of Caracalla

The complex is heroic in scale, from room to building to complex. The natatorium, tepidarium, and calderium are spaces of rarely matched grandeur and monumentality, sequenced together by a string of low dark spaces which further anunciate their immensity…the dome of the calderium long matched only by the dome of St. Peters. And these are just the kernels of the sprawling complex, surrounded by smaller spaces, immense still, that appear small only in their relativity.

The baths are perhaps most impressive in their juxtaposition of this grandeur and the undifferentiated public that occupied it. The splendor was for everyone, for free.


There was (is) something beguiling in this architectural translation of a politically utopian idea: to employ the city as a source of splendor for all people. As tended to be the case with many Roman architecture inventions, the form and idea percolated in the early formations of architecture, and eventually, of the Beaux-Arts, through its extant ruins and a set of reconstruction drawings completed by Palladio and Viollet-Le-Duc. It no doubt influenced the evolution of modern (in this case, not ancient, since the 1500s) architecture as a forceful conceptual presence, but likely with no more impact than in early 20th century New York, where it suddenly became materially manifest.

Figure 6: New York’s Penn Station

Between 1902 and 1910, McKim, Mead, and White, through the sponsorship of the city of New York, designed and constructed Pennsylvania Station as a steel and glass child of the Baths of Caracalla. They revived the ancient order in the heart of metropolitan, twentieth century New York, in honor of its new public equalizer. If in Rome it was baths, transportation would be the great democratizer in industrial America, train stations their secular temples. In a claim not too dissimilar from those of the emperors, New York sought to demonstrate its regional (if not global) dominance through the construction of a magnificent public building that would serve any and all travelers (read bathers). No one could arrive in New York without witnessing the immensity, and splendor, of its central station.


Figure 7: Penn Station Entrance Hall

The architectural translation from bathing to people-moving is clear in plan. The central span of the baths, originally the tepidarium, becomes the central waiting room of the station. Rather than bathing in the nude, visitors found and waited for trains in full material display. Surrounding the central and enclosed grandeur were spaces for dining, lounging, or refreshing (barber). Beyond them was the calderium-turned-Concourse, expanded to the scale of the gardens, where the steam of hot Roman water alchemically transmuted into the steam of locomotive engines. Beneath the soaring glass vaults, trains arrived and departed in perpetuity, moving with splendor the populations of the world.

Enclosing its perimeter, and establishing its heterotopic otherworldliness, was a similarly dimensioned bar of auxiliary program that included service spaces, offices, reading rooms, a post office, and even a hospital clininc. The shops that held up the baths turned inward to produce a connective thoroughfare between the world and the waiting room, connecting the precint back to the city. In this way, Penn Station did not simply reproduce the form of Caracalla, it repurposed its urbanity for an industrial interpretation of the same political ambition: heterotopic splendor for all. The train station had become the contemporary urban equivalent of public bathing, and thus warranted the same exertion of political will towards its celebration.

And yet, only 53 years later, in an equally demonstrative political move, New York tore it down to build Madison Square Garden. Undoubtedly one of the most impressive buildngs in the world erased, its spatial contents moved underground, and its foreclosed site rebuilt as a capitalist temple of profit. A year before the Civil Rights Act, which marked some, if entirely insufficient, political ambition towards public equality, the city of New York demolished its most heroic civic contribution. It is perhaps right to say that New York erased not only its most beautiful building, but its civic ambition to foster an equal public…be it bathing or transporting.


No doubt, America changed between 1910 and 1963, and public and bathing played central roles in its development. As Jeff Wiltse writes in his recent book, Contested Waters, “the history of swimming pools [in America] dramatizes [its] contested tradition from an industrial to a modern society” (Wiltse 2). At the turn of the century, around the time of Penn Stations construction, American cities were providing public swimming and bathing facilities en masse for their inhabitants. Though rarely matching the egalitarian openness of the Roman baths, the American baths still provided a much needed social and hygenic infrastructure for urban dwellers, and little to no cost. In much the same fashion as their Roman counterparts, these baths were anchors of communities, providing in their necessity and popularity a true civic platform for gathering.

Moreover, they too became urban tools of political demonstration, with no more audacity than by Robert Moses in 1936. In a New Deal investment of public infrastructure, Moses orchestrated the construction of eleven public swimming pools to be built throughout the boroughs, targeting specifically the poorest neighborhoods that would use them for hygeine as well as leisure. Some approaching the scale of Agrippa’s artificial lake, these municipal pools were vast and indulgent, deploying the Roman politic of public splendor. Like Penn Station, they demonstrate a political interest in the creation of public infrastructures of equality (ignoring, for the momentary sentiment, the unavoidable complexities of “equality” in the 1930s). Simply, the city built things for its inhabitants, just to make them happy.


Figure 8:Astora Pool (left) and McCarren Pool (right)

And yet, despite its possible (not guaranteed) intentions, the unique combination of true publicness and physical intimacy amidst a deeply troubled political climate of difference fostered uncontrollable conflict.

“Throughout their history, municipal pools served as stages for social conflict. Latent social tensions often erupted into violence at swimming pools because they were community meeting places, where Americans came into intimate and prolonged contact with one another. People who might otherwise come in no closer contact than passing on the street, now waited in line together, undressed next to one another, and shared the same water. The visual and physical intimacy that accompanied swimming made municipal pools intensely contested civic spaces. Americans fought over where pools should be built, who would be allowed to use them, and how they should be used“ (Wiltse 3)

Conflict was no more present than in the confrontation of race and sexuality, which only grew with their concomitant drives for equality. For most of their American history, growing out of the suppression of its Victorian roots, these pools were gender segregated. The public could not tolerate the indecency of shared exposure, nor the inevitable attractions that come with it. With the increasing traction of gender equality, however, the public realm was forced to adjust accordingly, and municipal pools slowly desegregated so that men and women swam together…of all races. At the time, the Great Migration was still underway, and the north was only beginning to face the newfound condition of racial diversity, and had not yet written oppressive laws to fight it.

For a few short years, municipal pools allowed everyone in: men, women, poor, rich, black, white. It did not last. Indeed, it is likely that this radically public confrontation stoked the growing fire of northern racial tensions. As Wiltse writes, “the concerns about intimacy and sexuality that had necessitated gender segregation previously did not disappear during the 1920s; rather, they were redirected at black Americans in particualr. Whites in many cases quite literally beat blacks out of the water at gender-integrated pools because they would not permit black men to interact with white women at such intimate public spaces” (Wiltse 4). What was once a source of playful debauchery for the ancients became a spark too powerful for a racially divided America. The equalizing intimacy and perceived vulnerability of collective nudity (even partial) was too much for a society that feared for its sovereignty, and understood a physically distinct group to be its violent usurpers. Instead of equalizing, nudity intensified. Not one people, two.

As took place in the general urban trend of the mid-century, white Americans began replacing public bathing with private bathing. They moved to suburbs with private pools, or joined exclusive clubs, or gave up swimming altogether. In promoting true and vibrant civic life, the municipal pool actually fostered its own demise. “The proliferation of private swimming pools after the mid-1950s…represented a retreat from public life. Millions of [white] Americans abandoned public pools precisely because they preferred to pursue their recreational actiities within smaller and more socially selective communities” (Wiltse 6). With unavoidable resonance, Penn Station fell and city pools emptied. The Roman ideal, briefly realized in heroic form, disappeared almost as quickly as its arose.


Indeed, it did not disappear entirely, as things never do perhaps, but instead transformed, embodying the societal shifts producing it. The public grandeur of Caracallan train stations and Agrippan pools swiftly became the privatized indulgence of a vertical bath complex. In his Delerious New York, Rem Koolhaas describes the Downtown Athletic Club: “Built In 1931, its 38 stories reach a height of 534 feet. Large abstract patterns of glass and brick make its exterior inscrutable and almost indistinguishable from the conventional Skyscrapers around it” (Koolhaas 152). Located along the West side of Manhattan, near Battery Park, the 77’ by 78’8” tower concentrates upwards the bodily ambitions of the Roman bath complex for a new and select population of metropolitanites. Built in conjunction with the rapid evolution of Wall Street, and its financial exorbitance and fury, “the Club opposed a complementary program of hyper-refined civilization, in which a full spectrum of facilities — all ostensibly connected with athletics — restores the human body” (Koolhaas 152).


Figure 9: Downtown Athletic Club  (from Delerious New York)

What was horizontally distributed in the Roman model, sequenced through thresholds of light and dark, inside and outside, is now layered vertically, separated completley from one another. The first twelve floors are all for recreation and athletics, and are exclusively for men. By nature of the vertical arrangement, these spaces are entirely sequestered from public view, belonging entirely to those given permission to use them. The next five floors “are devoted to eating, resting and socializing: they contain dining rooms — with a variety of privacise — kitchens, lounges, and even a library” (Koolhaas 157). Here, there is no gender separation, and men and women are able to mingle amidst the varied programs. The top twenty floors, then, are all bedrooms — architecturalizing, for the first time,  the implied sexuality of the complex and giving it space for indulgence. The building demonstrates a tripartite expression of sexuality, partial to the male dominance and promiscuity of the financial world it served: masculine (athletics), collective (socializing), individual (intimacy).

            Constructed on the heels of the previously noted collapse, the Club, and towers like it, effect a deliberate segregation of people: from the city and from each other. By condensing their programs to very small footprints, which then repeat vertically ad infinitum, the building’s presence in the public realm naturally shifts. From a precinct in which all could roam and see one another, to an anonymous obelisk with a small entrance and a parcelized interior. There can be no collective in a tower, only selective groupings. And thus, “skyscrapers such as the Club announce the imminent segregation of mankind into two tribes: one of the Metropolitanites — Modernity to reach unique levels of perfection, the second simply the remainder of the traditional human race” (Koolhaas 158). The Club, though it grows out of an ancient tradition of collective bodily care that invigorates the civic consciousness, embodies its inverse, and demonstrates the collapse of urban public life.


What are we left with? Though these collages only reach as far forward as the 1970s, they depict a world changing in a single direction: away from public life. In New York today, we do perhaps see the separation Koolhaas retroactively prophesizes: those with and those without. Equinox and the YMCA, the New York Athletic Club and Astoria Pool. There is no mixture, nor political will to support such mixture. Public splendor was built before the sixties, and now all we get is financialized splendor. The city doesn’t build for its people, it only incentivizes developers to earmark it for them.

What might we learn from the Romans?


Koolhaas, Rem. Delerious New York. Monacelli Press, New York, 1994.

Cameron, Charles. The Baths of the Romans. London, 1772. DAI: German Archaeological Institute. University of Cologne. Web.

Yegül, Fikret. Bathing in the Roman World. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Wiltse, Jeff. Contested Waters A Social History of Swimming Pools in America. University of North Carolina Press, 2010.