Saturday, August 25, 2012

For Body and Soul

Mimar Sinan, the great architect of the Ottoman Empire, lived a long life. By the time of his death in 1588, at the age of 98, he has completed an impressive list of over three hundred buildings. Among them, there are 48 buildings of hamam – Turkish communal bathhouses. Initially, I was surprised that the architect of the grandest mosques of his day would be involved in something so small and unprepossessing as a public bathhouse.  A visit to one of his still functioning hamams in Istanbul (Çemberlitaş Hamami) is an experience to understand both the impact of this great master’s work, and the essence of Turkish bath.

Hamam is like a mosque in miniature. One enters into a round space, crowned by a cupola. Through the steam, light shines from above, from a pattern of small round openings. Everything is in white, well-aged marble. In the middle, there is a large round marble podium where bathers are invited to lie and soak before washing. (Men’s and women’s sections are, obviously, separated, but the bath building is completely symmetrical, and the female half is identical to the male one. At least in the bathing ritual Muslim men and women always had equal rights.)

The experience of lying on the warm marble table under the piercing light is almost spiritual. The idea of cleansing assumes a symbolic meaning, as if all your unclear confusing thoughts could just melt away.  Later comes a physical wash, in shape of a robust bath attendant who soaps and massages you, then leaves you on the marble slab to continue your meditation.  Steam bath of Christian tradition – small crowded space of the sauna or the Russian steam room – never approaches this sense of openness and harmony.

I wish there was a bathhouse by Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright somewhere for comparison, yet I doubt they’d rival the old baths of Sinan.

Blogger RWordplay said...

First: "I wish there was a bathhouse by Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright somewhere for comparison, yet I doubt they’d rival the old baths of Sinan."

Mr. Boym, do you really wish for this, particularly as neither man was known to design with the comfort or human needs of their patrons. I'd argue had either man designed a hamam, it would be a place where people would catch their death of cold, or be boiled to death. Both architects would explain away these unfortunate occurrences by showing you letters from other architects and critics who marveled at the brilliance of the work. (The same would be true of Frank Gehry but he wouldn't care if people died of cold or heat. In fact, I suspect he'd enjoy hearing of it.)

But to the experience itself: I'm not an expect on the bath, although I once, long ago, worked on a product line based on the Japanese tradition of Onsen. Were these baths unique to the Turks, or were they an Islamic interpretation of a Byzantine custom? As many Islamic architectural features were of Greek, Roman and even Visigoth origins, what did the master Mimar Sinan contribute? Other than a prohibition on representations of God or men, what were the actual design innovations?

The notion of the public baths is brilliant, and I hope one day to visit The Çemberlitas Bath and then retire to Venice.

August 27, 2012 at 8:23 PM  

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