In the 1980s there were over twelve thousand launderettes in the UK, today there are less than three thousand. As part of my research into homes away from home in the city I am looking at these seemingly obsolete spaces and asking questions about our experience of using them. In a world where the emptying out of our insides (on social networking platforms such as Facebook or Twitter) seems to be perfectly acceptable behaviour, it is worth looking at one of the first places in which we washed our dirty linen in public.
The launderette (and by extension, the spaces crossed by washing-lines) exemplify the mixing of private and public and inside with outside. When we make a trip to the launderette, we engage in a process of carrying-out, from the home to the public space, the most intimate and bodily items that city-dwellers own. These worn, dirty, and personal fabrics travel outside the house to be cleaned; they cross the boundary between privacy and exposure.
In spite of being a space of possible exposure, the experience of using a launderette is often pleasurable; it is a cosy-exposure. Launderettes are warm, soapy, humming spaces where you are often left alone for an hour or two with just the machines and the spinning clothes to keep you company. They are technical spaces, and spaces of necessity, but they also occupy a space like Pierre Mayol’s neighbourhood, a space that is neither entirely public nor completely domestic. The launderette is a space of waiting; of idling, daydreaming and thinking. It is a space of space. Mayol writes that the home and neighbourhood “are the only places where in different ways one can do what one wants.”
There are other spaces in the city which combine the functionality and irrationality of the home. The launderette is an irrational space because it elongates and subverts the space-time relationship normally at work in the city – this is the relationship characterised by the commute to work; the crossing of the farthest distance in the smallest amount of time. As such this home away from home may also function as a space of absence, a space for daydreaming. Michel de Certeau writes: “I read and I daydream, my reading is thus an impertinent absence.” In the everyday reading of the city the launderette allows for a kind of delinquency.
Pierre Mayol, ‘The Neighbourhood’, The Practice of Everyday Life, Vol.2. Living and Cooking (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), p.11.
Michel de Certeau, ‘Reading as Poaching’, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988) p.173.