The sink in the hall: how pandemics transform architecture

Just after the First World War, a pandemic transformed architecture. While some designers reacted to the destruction and trauma with luxurious decoration, modernists took a radically different direction, modelling many of their domestic spaces on something reminiscent of a hospital ward. Strangely, the Spanish Flu of 1918, which wreaked devastation across the globe, was rarely spoken of once it finally lost its stranglehold, but its legacy lived on in concrete and glass. The suppressed horror of around 50 million deaths from an unseen enemy found its expression in designers’ preoccupation with hygiene, which gained traction as it merged with the technological developments of the new century.

The 1920s and ’30s saw a boom in interest in health and fitness. Bathrooms became fashionable features of households, reinvented in shiny, easily cleanable china, enamel and chrome, and there was a desire to strengthen the body, morally as well as physically: a new man (or woman) for the new age. In 1911, an International Hygiene Exhibition had been held in Dresden; it proved so popular that a museum was conceived, opened and still stands in its permanent location, celebrated by the staging of an equally successful second International Exhibition in 1930. Its founder, a mouthwash manufacturer, intended it to be an educational facility where the public could learn about anatomy, cleanliness and healthy living.


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