Features Australia

Build back better bathrooms

Hotel designers didn’t get the memo on aesthetics and practicality

30 July 2022

9:00 AM

30 July 2022

9:00 AM

As anyone who has flown recently knows, crowds of Aussies are thronging travel hubs, making up for years of Covid lockdowns. With the joys of travel also come the irritants. Queues, delays and unexpected expenses are all perils, but there’s a lesser rank of annoyances too – namely, accommodations that irritate where they should please, or at least be practical.

I’m thinking here of the rooms that light up at bedtime like Christmas trees with LED and standby lights that cannot be turned off, including blinds (curtains are so last century, it seems) that leak a bright square of city lighting around the edges.

One motel owner informed us that his TV remotes had a button that switches off the ambient lighting – who knew? That still leaves plenty of hard-to-reach fire alarm, air conditioning and other digital lights that will disrupt your slumber.

Sleep masks are one answer, and I can report that the fashionista trend for permanent fake eyelashes has led to a design advance, namely a mask with deep eye socket padding that is ultra-light resistant.

And who told hotel and motel designers that the shelves beside bathroom sinks were no longer required? Suddenly it’s all pedestal basins, or a mere sliver of shelving, even as those same heavily made up women now require a metre of space for all their cosmetics. A few select bottles and toiletries may be perched precariously beside the taps as sponge bags litter the floor.

What about those challenging shower taps that cruelly force you to stand shivering as you fiddle, naked, (without your glasses, obviously), with strangely formed taps with neither colours nor letters to guide hot and cold choices? My early rising husband now routinely explains the taps to me when we’re travelling.


Then there’s that modern monster, the overdesigned luxury constructions whose rooms take you half a day to navigate when you’re only there for a day anyway. We had to call room service recently in one oh-so-stylish flagship hotel to work out how to hang our clothes up. A semi-circle of two-metre high corrugated plastic jutted out of the wall and seemed to be the spot, but how to get our clothes in? Pulling on what looked like a handle caused the whole structure to rock and bend alarmingly. An hour later Mr Room Service showed us how a smart but heavy jerk with the correct handle opened the structure without destroying it. The same room had a window-sized opening in the bathroom, so one was unavoidably privy to everyone’s ablutions, as they were to yours. This became diabolical at around 5am, as my spouse’s early morning reading lit up the room. None of which compares with the challenge of our uberlux Shanghai hotel where our suite turned out to be subdivided into the Emperor and Empress suites – private chambers each the size of a medium Australian house. We picked the Emperor and found a marbled bathroom the size of your average ballroom, with a giant spa in the centre. We had a few hours before our next function, so I ran the spa taps, and then unpacked. Coming back 20 minutes later, the water only just covered the spa’s base. We abandoned that idea and turned to the oversized shower cubicle at the side of the room, where a plastic electronics wall panel covered with promising digital icons indicated this, that and the other fancy water feature – except that nothing we pushed or prodded or (ultimately) bashed made the water run. Up came Mr Room Service, who promptly marched over to an ordinary tap down near the floor in a far corner of the bathroom, where he turned on the water. Duh.

There’s clearly an influential design school somewhere busily conjuring up needless complexity, so that hoteliers can charge you more for the latest novel widget that you need an engineering degree to decipher.

If practicality doesn’t matter to these design schools, neither does beauty – but we have long known that, haven’t we? From Le Corbusier’s harsh modernism to the ugliness of Melbourne’s Federation Square, architects seem to vie for the most repellent way to ‘enhance’ their works, such as the green blob oozing over Melbourne’s RMIT campus, or the primary-colored metal columns lancing out of the ground in our cities.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder they say, so stop with your boring old traditional ideas of what pleases people. Yet, as the endless stream of tourists visiting the streetscapes, cathedrals and old buildings of Europe proves, what people enjoy as buildings is obvious and consistent.

Neuroscience supports the idea that humans are hard-wired on beauty. Eye-tracking studies show that people’s eyes ignore blank facades and focus instead on symmetry, detail and ornamentation – especially people and other living things.

This is the newish notion of biophilia, defined as the innate human instinct to connect with nature and other living beings. It turns out that gracing traditional buildings with statues of humans and animals, plant carvings and natural geometric patterns, lowers stress levels, releases endorphins, causes pleasure and is perceived as beautiful. Such buildings are therapeutic.

Symmetry matters. Denver architect Don Ruggles’ 2018 book entitled Beauty, Neuroscience & Architecture, argues infants’ bonding to their parents’ faces create a preference for a nine-square pattern, which,

was intuitively developed over thousands of years because of the facial pattern recognition skill that all humans are born with. This geometric pattern is a representation of a parent’s face, and the face represents … pleasure and love.

Think of a cottage where two windows and a central door parallel human eyes and a mouth; a more sophisticated example is Notre Dame in Paris. Think also of honeybees’ hexagonal combs mimicked in coffered ceilings, the geometric patterns in Islamic tiles, soaring gothic arches in churches that echo interlaced overhanging trees.

Years ago, adoring 16th Century Manueline architecture in Portugal, I hunted down building after building to enjoy the charming stone shells, thistles, leaves, ropes, pearls, spheres and anchor ornamentation.

Now, who’s going to tell the architects and designers?

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