As adduced, I have visited the homosocialist–homosexualist architectural extravaganza known as Steamworks. (Their construction notebook is great.)

First, I had a good laugh when I read that the membership database “will be stored offsite, ‘in a VeriSign server somewhere in Texas.’ ” Who in their right mind has anything to do with them? At any rate, I’ve made three archæological visits, with three results.

  1. I visit on a weeknight early in the life of the place. The desk “clerk” is Ethiopic, rather defying stereotype. They don’t have Interac, rather defying logic. I find my ideally-situated, orange-doored room handy to the supremely romantic grope area (also the showers) and notice the first innovation of the night: Not a locker, but a lockable drawer. (And a coathook.) I try to hack the TV remote to turn captions on. Pressing the buttons on the TV itself, they already are. This will be relevant later, as it turns out.

    I think the glassed-in showers (one hesitates to use the typical clarkism and call them douches) force an exhibitionism that is only justified by the décor. If this were a dump, we wouldn’t stand for it. But there’s no soap from the custom-made showerheads; one avails himself of the provided bottles of body wash.

    I walk around the place and note the well-finished brutalist concrete floors covered with minimalist – and replaceable – carpets. With the exposed bolts, grey-and-red colour palette, and abundant stainless steel, the brutalist–minimalist æsthetic never recedes into the background. That night, whatever satellite radio service they’d dialed up (which one? I desperately want to know) played nonstop inhuman industrial music – rather avant-garde and unmelodic, not pop in the slightest. In the dim lighting, dialed just one iota above the threshold at which neither rods nor cones function well, you have no sense of place whatsoever save for this special place.

    It’s an oasis that could be anywhere in the Western world, but it turns its back on the traditions of holiday interior design, with no burnished walnut or soft cushions or even any Modernist natural materials. The combination made me feel I was involved in some kind of DV8 Physical Theatre piece. I found it magical and alienating in the best sense.

    The weightroom is too small for the equipment crammed into it, but the coloured weights look mighty fine. (Who spends that kind of money to work out?) Then there’s the raised shower–sauna–whirlpool area, with a completely different kind of exhibitionistic shower installation with its own strong sense of place. The dry sauna smells woody. But, mother of God, the hot tubs are fantastic. “Custom-built” doesn’t begin to describe them – stainless-steel steps that meld imperceptibly into ramps and seats. (Not quite the kind of ramps we would like. That too will be relevant later.)

    The advantage of going there on a weeknight is it’s nearly deserted. Essentially, you get your own health club. And you get your own whirlpool straight out of a Teutonic design school. I kept thinking of the reports of ill-maintained hot tubs in other “tubs,” as it were. Get in the one at St. Marc and you’ve pretty much sat in a vat of chicken noodle soup. But I decided that if no other expense was spared, keeping the water clean would have been handled, too.

    I think the snack-bar area is overlit and trite, and the bar isn’t open yet; much could go wrong in the design of that bar. But I left the place an hour and a half later (you shouldn’t spend too long at these places if the fish aren’t immediately biting) feeling fabulous and relaxed. I had just enjoyed a sojourn in some parallel universe.

    And on the way out, the absurdly boyish goody-two-shoes “clerk” quizzed me about my reactions. And kept quizzing me. So I brought up accessibility. There actually is an elevator behind a locked door, and they’ve had one fella up there in a chair already. Someday they hope to get the wet area accessible. I gently pointed out that it could have been made such at the outset, at the loss of usable volume, and that accessibility extends beyond wheelchairs.

  2. I know you can never set your foot in the same river – let alone hot tub! – twice, but I visit again the next week. Pretty much everything went wrong.

    Separately, I checked the ingress route for this alleged guy in a wheelchair. You have to follow a path through a patio (seldom to be cleared of snow, and often crowded with people) to the enclosed side door used by upper-storey residents. The vestibule doors are manual and there is no signage whatsoever. You’re supposed to buzz upstairs, apparently, at which point everything is unlocked for you. Do you have any idea how many criteria that flunks right off the bat?

    Once inside:

    • The room they gave me wasn’t made up and was right next door to the chatty AIDS-education room, where I would be stuck listening to accented chiffon voices preach to the converted. I got another one.
    • Picture my surprise to find totally dry hot tubs cordoned off by duct tape and a home-printed sign reading “Closed by order of the Department of Public Health.”
    • The music was all wrong; I don’t even remember the genre.
    • And still no soap from the built-in dispensers.

    On the way out, I got the same “clerk” as last time. He thought the whirlpool shutdown was due to “filters”; he was surprised when I mentioned Public Health. And I told him about the first room.

    The next day, I rang Toronto Public Health to find out what the hell was going on with the hot tub. The testy “duty inspector” said I could file a Freedom of Information Act request if I wanted to find out; she wouldn’t even confirm or deny that Steamworks had had an action taken against it. She was surprised to hear that the home-laser-printed signs on the hot tubs claimed the closure was at the order of Public Health even though there was no large yellow official notice anywhere. (Look for an incident number and inspector name should it happen again.) She said she’d mention that to the area inspector.

    And accessibility? E-mails with some fella at corporate headquarters elicited the corporate apologia that they comply with all “mandates.” That’s pretty easy to disprove, and anyway, what they’ve got going isn’t adequate. The goal is accessibility, not compliance. I’m not an expert on architectural access, but if they want any of the rest of it fixed, they can simply hire me.

    At any rate, I bailed early and wondered how things could go so wrong so quickly.

  3. I tried a weekend visit, just to see what the place was like when actually populated. And that was the problem: When the new joint in town is crowded, it becomes clear that the joint can be as new as they want but we’re still dealing with the same old gene pool. In the first place, I don’t like to be around half of them when they’re clothed. And in some other cases, if I wanted to see what they looked like unclothed, I could simply check their BigMuscleBlogs.

    I made very sure to ask on the way in about the hot tubs (working, and they were great). I got a room two doors down from the replacement room last time.

    One fella fancied me, but the feeling was not mutual. He seemed like some kind of queer theorist with crazy eyes and a good body. I get enough sarcasm looking in the mirror, thank you very much.

    I watched this strangely charming Old West–themed adult feature for a while and left once more after about an hour and a half. I was then able to invert the natural order and visit the Eagle and other establishments after going to the sauna.

Hence, I think the advice for visiting Steamworks can be inferred from the following tidbit in the February 1990 Spy profile of “New York society Überhostess Nan Kempner” (emphasis added):

“I think people need to rest now and then, don’t you?” says Aileen Mehle, known in her syndicated gossip column as Suzy. “You go out every other night of the week, so you must take the weekend off from the party circuit. Otherwise you simply get too much of muchness and not enough fun.”

My sentiments exactly. Go on a schoolnight when you can plausibly pretend you have the place to yourself. Take a vacation in a high-design future.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2004.06.22 19:45. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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None. I quit.

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