The Great Stink

Julie Chen – A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning

Collaborator: Adam Chase – School of Music, Theatre & Dance

“The Great Stink” is an experimental mini-opera in three acts, seeks to explore how collaboration between architecture, performance, and engineering can stimulate an understanding of systems in the built environment typically left unseen. To tell the story of hidden hygienic systems and their environmental impact, the project repositioned the residential bathrooms as a scenographic. In this scenario, plumbing pipes are reimagined as instruments, hardware as props, and wet walls are refashioned into sets.

In exploring the intersection of bodies, building systems, and ecology, I have taken a deeper look at standardized fixtures, plumbing system, and their relationship to urban morphologies. It reflects the design decisions that have been made on toilets or fixtures, bathrooms, and residential units. Thus, domestication, privatization, and proliferation of toilets are the driving force behind architecture and urban planning. Because of urbanization, toilets have changed from horizontally scattered to stacked vertically. Standardized fixtures, such as baths, toilets, and sinks, vary in styles and have been widely available to any household since 1935 when they appeared in The American Architectural standard as symbols of modernization. Standardization then took charge of the bathroom design and made it into a one-piece capsule. Materials and objects used in the bathroom are also standardized for reducing the labor we spend on keeping it clean. However, the prevailing Euro-centric toilet system in the bathroom reminds us human waste existed. The toilet system also requires support from meta-scale sewage systems and abundant water for plumbing which is the reality we tend to overlook.

Performance art can help restructure the relationship between bathrooms, toilets, and bodies by defamiliarizing standard interior plumbing elements and transforming them into acoustic instruments. Coupled with operatic scores, the experiment will help sensitize audiences to matters of architectural standardization, resource extraction, and socially constructed norms.

The project methodology borrows from the performing arts by casting the residential bathroom as an experimental scenographic construct, which focuses on building core, ventilation, and wet walls. The typological abstraction of the project is to defamiliarize the plumbing pipes as instrumental scenography. The choreography of sounds serves as a method to represent the distance between architecture and environmental resources. The materials applied in this design will be part of a stagecraft presentation. Sound effects will be evaluated in this project to unpack and problematize the concept of standardized sustainability in housing design.