X is for An Expert on Bathrooms: Alexander Kira & Peter Greenaway’s 26 Bathrooms. INSIDE (hi)STORIES film screening and talk 27 April, 6:15pm

Historian Hayden White once noted, “Every discipline [is] constituted by what it forbids its practitioners to do.” In this talk, I adapt White’s statement to argue that disciplines are equally constituted by what they allow practitioners to speak about or how they are allowed to speak. Bathrooms and toilets test the boundaries of disciplinary limits like no other subject. Toilets are not invisible in art and design discourse – far from it – but they are spoken about in very particular ways in order to contain their taboo aspects.

The first part of this talk considers the ways in which toilets have been “cleansed” within architecture, specifically through the modernist language of formalism. In the second part, Peter Greenaway’s rare 1985 film, 26 Bathrooms will be screened. The film wittily (but always sympathetically) exposes the restrictions of such cleansed discourse through the figure of the Bathroom Expert. This figure was loosely based on Alexander Kira, whose unique bathroom studies at Cornell University resulted in the 1966 book, The Bathroom, now regarded as a classic of “user-centred” scholarship. Through the figure of the Expert, Greenaway probes the silences or strategic gaps in scholarly discourse, in a way that continues to be highly relevant today.

Barbara Penner is Senior Lecturer in Architectural History at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. She is author of Newlyweds on Tour: Honeymooning in Nineteenth-Century America (UPNE, 2009) and co-editor of Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender (Temple University Press, 2009). She is presently working on Bathroom, a cultural history of the ‘smallest room’ (Reaktion, forthcoming).