Duck Duck Book

62 – lavoirs
07.12.2009, 12:02 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

Lavoirs : washhouses of rural France / Mireille Roddier ; foreword by Billie Tsien.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c2003.
[MCL call number: 720.944 R686L 2003: one copy, no holds]

In the 17th century, local governments in France began to build a new kind of municipal facility: lavoirs, or washhouses.  They were simple, solid affairs (usually built of stone) designed to channel water for from streams and rivers into large basins, or catch it when it rained.  Housewives and professional wash-women came to these communal facilities to launder clothing and linens, and they remained in use, in some places, until the time of the Second World War.

Many, many lavoirs have been demolished, but some remain, especially in smaller and more remote towns, and in towns where the lavoir was built together with another facility such as the town hall.  For those of us who cannot make a tour of lavoirs, Mireille Roddier carefully and beautifully photographed several dozen for her book Lavoirs: Washhouses of Rural France.

I found the images startling — the buildings themselves are lovely in a utilitarian way, but noticing this, I also can’t help but notice that they are not being used.  In every picture, the water in the basins and channels are still, and the large rooms are empty of people and laundry.  The photographs look quiet, exactly the opposite of how they must have been when in use, full of women working, talking, splashing water; maybe laughing or singing or arguing.  It’s eerie to see pictures of these lovely buildings with their picturesque pools and rills glassy and smooth in a way they would originally have been only at the start of the workday, or at night.

The bulk of Roddier’s photographs are preceded by an essay explaining the history of lavoirs as buildings and as civic facilities, regional variations in architectural style, and other architectural matters.  The essay also discusses the social impacts of lavoirs, together with a brief history of their use and a bit of explanation of the place laundresses held in French society during the period when lavoirs were common and in regular use.  All this is fascinating, and useful for explaining just what is represented in Roddier’s photographs, but the book would be worthwhile just for the beauty of those photographs.


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