Across many cities in the Global North, gay and queer establishments are in decline. Recent articles in the Washington Post (US), The Guardian (UK) and Star Observer (Australia) have all reported on the dramatic loss of LGBTQ nightlife, fuelled by a combination of changing social norms, gentrification and technology. In the United States, for example a 2022 study showed that over a third of all gay bar listings disappeared in the twelve years between 2007-2019.
Urban research studies are attributing this “degaying” to several political, social, and economic factors. Legislative and social progress has led to greater visibility and societal acceptance of LGBTQ individuals; gay villages/establishments are becoming commodified tourist destinations attracting non-LGBTQ consumers and businesses, and; people are using social media apps as an alternative venue to express themselves freely and communicate with the likeminded. Mostly, this is all positive news, but it does mean queer spaces have become diluted, and perhaps less socially necessary. But beyond bars, clubs and other queer venues, what does this mean for gay sex spaces such as the bathhouse/sauna?
Commissioned by Australia’s Perth Steamworks, I led the research and design of a renovation and retrofit of an existing bathhouse. Drawing on my background as an architectural sociologist and interior architect, the project explores the unique role that bathhouses have historically played in gay communities, as well as how they can best adapt to a changing cultural and technological landscape. I look forward to overseeing construction, which is set to kick off in late 2023.
Immediate research, alongside conversations with the client, revealed a flux in demand for bathhouses. This shift is prompted by two forces; firstly, the acceptance and integration of gay men — and subsequently gay/queer spaces — into broader society, and secondly, the proliferation of apps (such as Grindr) that facilitate casual encounters without the need to peruse and select partners in real life scenarios. A third force has been inherent in the bathhouse since its contemporary inception — stigma surrounding its use.
Societal acceptance of gay men and other queers often means that gay/queer bars, clubs and gay districts/villages gradually become sublimated into the mainstream, often leaving them diluted — no longer places that are predominantly associated with same-sex or queer mingling.
This dilution effect is well noted in areas such as Oxford Street in Sydney, Northbridge in Perth and Church Street in Toronto. It is also compounded by the advent of online/phone applications as a point of establishing same-sex meets. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the allure of seeking and meeting in real life scenarios (as opposed to online) has diminished, only that its strict necessity — and therefore prevalence — has arguably decreased. Both trends reinforce each other to continually dilute arguably one of the core tenets of same-sex attraction spaces: sexual encounters.
Unlike many other queer typologies, the bathhouse is inherently carnal in nature. This means that it cannot be diluted outside of its core user group in the same way that queer bars and clubs have proliferated into the mainstream — it fundamentally remains a place for men who have sex with men.
Considering the dilution of queer typologies, the advent of applications as a point of meeting, as well as inherent issues of stigma surrounding the bathhouse, two core questions were posed to consider a potential future of the bathhouse typology: How can patrons be encouraged to seek/meet face-to-face with the ease and discretion that online platforms or apps offer? Moreover, how can patrons be encouraged into the bathhouse rather than relying on apps and hosting encounters at home. That is, what’s the bathhouse offering that isn’t at home and how can we capitalize on this?
With Perth Steamworks as a case study, a design speculation was undertaken which addressed these questions by focusing on three principles:
1. Hybrid Functions. Hybridity was suggested as a strategy to minimize the intimidation and stigma for patrons of the bathhouse — allowing opportunities for dance, drinking, bathing and social mingling, rather than solely being a typology regarded for casual sexual acts. While sex remains its core purpose, these other functions could simultaneously invite additional revenue, while presenting a more socially acceptable guise for attendance. Beyond offering a mixed-use space, it’s important that the activities are truly hybrid — they blend; there are opportunities to talk, dance, lounge and have sex within and across each zone. For example, patrons might platonically use a sexual area for its atmosphere, rather than its inherent ergonomic purpose, or sexual participants might use podiums for exhibitionist purposes on the dance-floor.
2. Prospect and Refuge. To facilitate the controlled exposure of personal identity, and provide opportunities to conceal and reveal oneself through the space, the design makes use of chain curtains, semi-opaque polycarbonate wall systems, as well as carefully considered lighting and strategically placed mirrors.
3. Dramaturgy and Fantasy. The bathhouse can provide a venue for performance, voyeurism and exhibitionism dynamics that would not be available in the home. A selection of fantasy rooms were informed by gay porn scenarios using a narrative enquiry research method (essentially finding visual commonalities across scenes). In psychological studies, it is argued that porn scenes are dyadic in nature — fantasy and fetish informing set design and vice versa. Using an aggregator website that searches all gay porn sites internationally, the most popular gay porn scenes ever were filtered and replicated; cinema/office/outdoor/massage room/medical/gym-locker room/garage/as well as the more everyday settings such as a bedroom scenario, as well as BDSM.
In developing the design, it was critical that the three principles interact and are applied in context. For example, while the provision of fantasy rooms provides something we typically can’t find at home, hybrid principles mean that these rooms needed to be abstracted enough to allow for a dance, drink, chat and lounge, as well as a range of sexual acts. Further, Perth Steamworks is distinguished by a relatively large and open floor area with ample amenities — and while these design principles may be applicable to other bathhouses, they should be considered together alongside existing contexts.
I hope that my research and design process can offer a useful reference point for the interior design of bathhouses in an era of degaying and dilution. The bathhouse can be a place that addresses its own stigma, attracts people through diverse uses while providing ease of meeting others, and offers a fantastical place that can’t be replicated at home. I believe that these principles can fortify the bathhouse typology and preserve its continued relevance. You might say these are ways for designers to stiffen the bathhouse.
Images credit to Jack Tooley, with assistance from Kayleen Graham and Madeleine Greenwood
Designer and architectural sociologist Jack Tooley explores the continued vitality of queer bathhouses around the world.