RiotACT columnist Kim Huynh reflects upon the history and destiny of our bathrooms and civilisation.
Going to the bathroom at the Dickson Community Health Centre was a profound – almost Proustian – experience for me.
I was taking my son for a check-up and realised that the last time I was there my Mum was taking me for just such an appointment.
Back then the bathroom seemed new, sleek and wondrous.
Now I was struck by how little had changed. The wooden benchtops looked as shiny as the day the centre opened. The yellow-brown tiles were entirely intact. And the urinals had a curvaceous charm that’s hard to find in contemporary varieties.
There had been some modifications over the decades. A plastic paper towel dispenser replaced the hand towels that once hung from the railing. I suspect the handrails around the toilets and urinals had been added as our health and safety awareness increased. The taps were miss-matched, which gave the place hipster appeal. However, none of these changes detracted from the distinctive ambiance of the bathroom.
I wondered whether my boy would return to this place as a man and remember his first visit. How would he feel as he contemplated what remained and what had changed?
Upon booking our next appointment, the receptionist informed us that the centre was to be renovated. It was old and rundown. It needed overhauling or perhaps even a knock-down-rebuild. This was made all the more necessary after a driver accidently crashed into one of its walls last year.
Learning of the bathroom’s fate filled me with feelings of loss and nostalgia.
No doubt when my son goes to the new Dickson Community Health Centre he will be able to relieve and clean himself in a far more functional place. Almost every surface will be white, beige or grey and easy to clean. There’ll be little if any grout and a rapid eco hand drier on the wall.
It probably won’t last as long as the current bathroom, but will be replaced with one that’s pretty much identical in look and utility. In this way, I predict that my son will return to the same bathroom again and again, in Dickson and in many other places.
His experience of this bathroom will be a microcosm of his experience of Canberra’s architecture and, beyond that, Western civilisation. There’ll be little in his cultural life that’s distinctive or significant and thus nothing that’s worth remembering, preserving or updating. Just the same-old new stuff.
After the Cold War, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed that the spread of liberal democracies marked the end of history; that is, the potential for politics to radically change or even evolve had all but ceased.
Fukuyama is sometimes criticised as a cheerleader for US power. However, he’s far less sanguine about Western culture, which he believes is destined to stagnate because of crass consumerism and democracy.
The result, he says in the End of History and the Last Man, is that we’ll see the demise of ‘beautiful but useless things’ like poems and Fabergé eggs and ‘vastly greater quantities of things that are useful but ugly: machine tools, freeways, Toyota Camrys, and prefabricated houses’.
The point being that we should protect, renovate and build our bathrooms, cities and societies with a view to giving our descendants something to treasure rather than flush away.
What’s your favourite Canberra bathroom and why? Do you think that there’s a lack of innovation and distinction when it comes to Canberra’s (and Western civilisation’s) architecture and design? If so, what should be done? If not, why not? Any thoughts Paul Costigan?
Kim Huynh is a RiotACT culture columnist, ANU international relations lecturer and presents every second Friday on ABC Canberra Radio’s Drive.