Jess began their thesis project with research on the history of queer collective spaces in Toronto. "I was specifically looking back to the 1970s and 1980s," Jess says, "to the spaces and conflicts that started the LGBTQ liberation movement in Canada and in Toronto. That brought me to a keystone moment in the early 1980s, where Toronto's queer bathhouses were attacked by police in a series of raids called Operation Soap."
At the time, queer bathhouses provided a number of services to the LGBTQ community in Toronto. Although they looked inconspicuous from the street, on the inside they were cruising spots, where queer people could meet partners. As Jess puts it: "Not everyone who went to the bathhouses participated in sex, but everyone benefitted from the idea that some did."
The raids were catastrophic. "The fallout was tragic, and many patrons were put in jail, outed to their families or workplaces, and violently beaten by police," Jess says. "Operation Soap is considered the Stonewall moment for Canada. From it rose riots, a surge of protests and a coordinated effort by queer media such The Body Politic, which eventually led to what we consider LGBTQ rights in Canada today."
Lasting impacts from the raids, in combination with demographic changes in the city, have left Toronto's bathhouse culture all but extinct. Other spaces that cater to the needs of the city's queer community are likewise becoming increasingly rare. The majority of the city's best-known queer spaces have closed permanently over the past few years — most recently the Beaver Café, a beloved spot located near Queen and Dufferin streets, whose owners were forced to shutter the business because of financial challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Spaces that were used by the queer community in a more unofficial capacity — like Queen's Park, once a popular cruising spot — have also become less active, in part because of increased police surveillance.
Through a series of interviews with members of the queer community, Jess uncovered a strong desire for a space where queer and trans people could simply relax. They became interested in translating Toronto's history of lost queer spaces into a contemporary take on the classic bathhouse. They wanted their bathhouse design to be located in a place where it would blend in with the city's mainstream business scene, much the way bathhouses of old were forced to. As the location for their bathhouse, Jess chose a site just up the street from the Beaver Café's former location: The Dufferin Mall.
For tens of thousands of Torontonians, the Dufferin Mall is an essential source of groceries and household goods. Its centrality in the lives of nearby residents — of diverse races, income levels, sexualities, and body types — was part of the attraction. "One of my goals was to reclaim a relaxed space for queer bodies in public Toronto," Jess says.
With the site chosen, Jess set about designing a detailed floor plan for the bathhouse, inspired by the floor plans of ancient Roman baths. "As you progressed through a Roman bathhouse it became increasingly more sexualized," Jess says. "In the front there was a kind of YMCA, leisure vibe, but if you met a partner you could progress into the back, where people were nude and often engaged in sexual activity."
Jess's bathhouse greets guests in a reception and lounge area, which overlooks a field-like locker room, where the showers share a water supply (and a circular design) with a fountain in one of the mall's public corridors:
From the locker room, guests proceed into the first of the bathhouse's wet spaces, which Jess calls the "tepid" zone. This area consists of a large, semi-heated pool, where people can bathe comfortably, and communally:
The next area — the "steamy" zone — is designed specifically to facilitate sexual encounters. Jess divided the area into a warren of hot saunas, steam rooms, tubs, and bedrooms. "Guests can engage in the timeless queer activity of sexualizing public space," Jess says:
The bathhouse's final area is an outdoor garden with a pool of cold water and a café, making it the perfect place to refresh oneself before heading back into the mall.
Advisor: Vivian Lee
Top image: Jess's floor plan.