From the pissoir to the sanisette, from the communal to the stand-alone pod, from male to female provision, a rich seam of history runs through toilets
In the toilets on Petticoat Lane, I discovered a world I had only heard about in rumours. It was my first year in London and I’d been walking drunkenly home one night when, at the bottom of those concrete steps, semi-clothed men surrounded me, fucking with abandon. Well, that’s gone now, and with it the opportunity for people to relieve themselves: in other words, to use public spaces comfortably. Instead the piss-streaked city is punctuated by elaborate ironwork enclosures, their gates forever closed, their steps leading down to sealed chambers – monuments to a departed public.
Of course, these facilities were rarely olfactorily alluring, and the association of queers with such abject spaces is a mainstay of homophobic prejudice. But alongside the erstwhile necessity of the lavatory as a meeting place for men who were too young, isolated or closeted to frequent gay bars, and the self-evident frisson of chance meetings, there is also a perverse revelry in societal disapproval at work in the cottage, an attitude of ‘fuck you – I’ll roll in the filth and enjoy it’. Viz, for instance, Joe Orton’s salacious diaries, or the video for George Michael’s song Outside.
This activity, along with race, gender and class anxieties, is one of the reasons that public lavatories have always been so carefully watched, and recently, so enthusiastically closed. Here I must add, in the words of African-American legal scholar Taunya Lovell Banks, that ‘perhaps only people who have been denied access by law to bathrooms can fully understand the impact both on body and dignity of this form of discrimination’. Indeed, one of the first people to die in the civil rights struggle was Samuel Younge Jr, who was shot by a lavatory attendant while trying to use a segregated facility in Alabama. As a place where bodies are exposed in unwonted proximity and societal niceties about privacy are dangerously destabilised, the public toilet is an explosive site, as witnessed by the controversy over transsexual access in the States today.
There is also the neoliberal shrinkage of the state to thank for our vanishing toilets, of course, and the evaporation of municipal budgets for maintenance and attendants under conditions of enforced austerity. (The days of SAB Rogers, author of the unforgettable Four Acres and a Donkey: The Memoirs of a Lavatory Attendant, 1979, are sadly long gone, and with them an entire subculture. Rogers’ regulars included a 50-year-old man called Daisy who drank a bottle of champagne in his toilet every day). And so the elderly, parents of young children, the disabled and the unwell are all made to suffer so that a little bit more public money can be given to the rich. Meanwhile, former loos are turned into bars, restaurants and, in one London example, a flat. What could be more evocative of the desperate topsy-turviness of our self-induced housing crisis.
The heyday of the comfort station, to use one of its many ludicrous euphemisms, was the age of the Victorians, with their terror of the fetid masses. But they were hardly the first: in former Mesopotamia, a row of seven holes has been discovered, indicating a place of communal repose. The Romans had them too, long benches shared by chatting excreters who wetted their bum sponges in a channel running around the floor. Evidently aware of the dangers lurking in the pit, they frequently installed an image of Fortuna, guardian of the latrine user. In Pompeii she exclaims ‘Cacator cave Malum!’, (‘Shitter beware evil!’).
In China, where once ‘pig toilets’ allowed human excrement to be gobbled up by livestock in a pen below, communal arrangements still obtain, albeit decreasingly so. They are perhaps a testimony to a less-atomised society that is passing into history. Perhaps. It is tempting to read a nation’s character in its bathrooms, but such crappermancy risks diving into the cesspit of prejudice, from which perspective other peoples are dirtier and more primitive than the lavatorially advanced West. In fact, as Barbara Penner has pointed out in her excellent book on bathrooms, our empire of WCs polluted the world, which may have had some better ideas on the topic of waste disposal before we insisted on flushing it out to sea.
There is also great variation – and a great deal of sniffiness – between Western nations: the (usually now ex-) British toilet, discreetly subterranean, the French with their generously provided but often soapless squatters, frequently to be found leaning against the walls of country churches, sometimes in the form of urinals sans guard. It’s not very English, is it, to piss en plein air (until we are pissed, when it’s chocks away). And the Americans who, for a nation of rampant individualists, are unnervingly unconcerned by enormous gaps around cubicle doors – or is this due to the ideological nature of their individualism, which is only for the rich and in other cases masks a taste for total surveillance? Again, I may be reading too much into what is floating in the bowl, which reminds me: the Germans and their ledges. But perhaps it is better to pass over that in silence, while acknowledging that the parsimoniousness of British toilet provision might reasonably be taken to denote a national propensity for tight-arsedness.
It was not always this way. Once our toilets ruled the waves, beginning with domestic triumphs by campaigners such as the Society of the Arts, which petitioned the government for expanded provision of public loos and, on being met with official reluctance, used their Great Exhibition as an opportunity for lavatorial propaganda. George Jennings’ Crystal Palace toilets were a great success, being used 827,820 times by the exhibition’s end. Other manufacturers soon took up the refrain, such as Walter McFarlane, whose Glasgow factory was one of the world’s most productive sources of public convenience at the time.
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Although British manufacturing, with its access to plundered materials and capital, took the lead, the French had preceded us in terms of civic-mindedness. The Parisian pissoir was first introduced in 1830, its metal screen used as a mount for advertising. Where there’s muck, there’s revenue streams, but later the same year these structures were torn up and used as barricades. A new model was tried by Claude-Philibert Barthelot, Comte de Rambuteau in 1841 (these cylindrical structures were known as Rambuteau Columns), and again in 1877 when, under Haussmann’s regime, more elaborate, multi-cellular structures were introduced. These were covered as before by ads and nicknamed vespasiennes, after the emperor Vespasian, who had supposedly introduced the first public toilets – and a tax on the same. These artefacts are beautifully documented in the photographs of Charles Marville: of the 1,230 that existed at Paris’s peak of pissoirs in the 1930s, only one now survives.
Charles marville, urinoir en fonte à 2 stalles avec écran, chaussée de la muette, ca. 1865
All these examples had the signal drawback of being unusable by women, whose micturition was too obscene to even be contemplated – or perhaps it was that they were more easily confined to the domestic sphere if they could not stray further than nature’s call allowed. Women have contested this inequity from the outset: in the 1890s the Union of Women’s Liberal and Radical Associations of the Metropolitan Counties agitated for the provision of free public toilets for the use of working women in London. Even where facilities were available, they pointed out, women had to pay and men did not, and this effectively excluded the poor.
Such efforts contributed to the elimination of the pissoir, which has been replaced by the unisex ‘sanisette’, a self-cleaning prefabricated toilet first introduced at the Beaubourg in 1982. Produced by advertising company JCDecaux and pasted, as is traditional, with ads, these hefty objects have since spread across the world, under the generic name of Automated Public Conveniences (APCs). Barbara Penner remarks that these superloos, as they are sometimes known in Britain, mark the culmination of a Modernist dream, first glimpsed in Bucky Fuller’s Dymaxion Bathroom, to mass-produce washing facilities as stand-alone pods. It is appropriate then that Nicholas Grimshaw, who began his career with a plug-in bathroom tower, has more recently collaborated on APCs for NYC. These objects need not be undesigned, then: indeed in Britain we inevitably have historicist models with fake masonry detailing – what can only be called tweepees.
While some countries rush headlong into the robo-toileted future, as of 2015, 2.3 billion people had no access to toilets, one third of them in India. This is the cause of enormous health inequality and of immediate physical danger to women who must expose themselves in the open air. Governments and NGOs have long struggled with this problem, especially in slums or rural areas with no drains. Perhaps they have struggled in the dark: the inappropriateness of the Western WC for some contexts has wasted a lot of time and money. In turn Bill Gates has funded a competition to find the loo of the future, and it seems likely that, whatever form this takes, it will look back to a past when waste wasn’t flushed but recycled. Pigs of the world, rejoice!
Rohan Chavan, Women’s Toilet in Thane, India, 2016
The lack of toilet provision in developing countries is not limited to India, but it is here that it is most dire, and perhaps most detrimental to women. The scandalous sexual abuse suffered by Indian women, which has recently received much attention from Western media, frequently occurs while they are trying to relieve themselves in the open air. The government and NGOs have made many attempts to ameliorate the problem, with varying degrees of failure. In the large city of Thane, a local social enterprise organisation named Agasti, which focuses on the provision of urban toilets, commissioned architect Rohan Chavan to design a facility specifically aimed at women. Constructed around the trunk of an extant tree, the building has four cubicles and a rest area in which women can relax and chat, protected by a 24-hour guard and CCTV. While the sentiment behind the project is admirable, and it functions well as built propaganda for the cause, one wonders how pleasant congregating adjacent to toilets would be, and the prominent security provision is as depressing as it is necessary.
Rohan chavan, women’s toilet drawings
Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter, Selvika National Tourist Route in Finnmark, Norway, 2012
On the inhospitable and remote far-northern coast of Norway, a strange serpentine structure lies draped across the shore. Like a fossilised sea monster exposed by erosion, the shuttered concrete form winds around the site, taking visitors down from the road to a picnic table that is sheltered from the elements but exposed to the majestic view. The long path is determined by the necessity of providing access down the steep grade of the beach, but the architects have made a virtue of this, transforming the ramp into an architectural promenade prolonging the discovery of the landscape. As well as eating facilities, the structure also incorporates a barbecue and bike shed, and, at its upper end, lavatories, contriving to separate the latter without the need for obtrusive structures that would damage the natural beauty of the environment. It is a triumph of confidence in the provision of facilities in a sensitive spot, which turns to the power of building to enhance a place rather than hiding it coyly beneath an architectural fig leaf.
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Rra selvika havoysund 53©jiri havran statens vegvesen
Reiulf ramstad arkitekter, selvika national tourist route drawings
Daigo Ishii + Future-scape Architects, House of Toilet on Ibukijima Island, Japan, 2013
The symbolic or signifying functions of the public toilet are usually secondary, at the most speaking of civic generosity, or, more accidentally, of meanness and neglect. But why shouldn’t the smallest room commune with the cosmos, as in this public lavatory on the Japanese island of Ibukijima? Taking its cue from the sliced spaces of Daniel Libeskind, the structure – which appears similar to other local houses from the outside – is divided by imaginary lines stretching out beyond the borders of the tiny island to the wider world. Tracing vectors between the structure and global capitals such as New York, London and São Paulo, these slits divide it into separate lavatory pavilions, and allow natural light in at certain times of day. The building thereby becomes a sort of clock, and we are reminded that even the humblest functions of the human body are a part of vast natural systems. That should give visitors something to think about.
Daigo ishii + future scape architects, house of toilet drawings
Jestico + Whiles, Princess Diana Memorial Playground Lavatories in London, 2001
The incorporation of a toilet into the memorial for a beloved public figure is a delicate matter, and one that fully justifies a revival of the otherwise tediously prudish British tradition of the subterranean lav. Here, however, the monument takes the form of a children’s playground inspired by Peter Pan, incorporating wigwams and a pirate ship, and the toilets are accordingly anything but po-faced. Rising from the landscaping (designed by Land Use Consultants), a grassy mound covers the domed concrete structure, which is entered via a curved, white-rendered wall. Tubular forms emerge from the apex of the hillock, bringing daylight into the highly coloured spaces below, while protecting the privacy of its users. The whole has the air of a neolithic burial chamber converted into a public convenience, or alternatively, somewhere the Tellytubbies might go to relieve themselves.
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1748 diana princess of wales memorial gdns n5 highjames morris
Jestico + whiles, princess diana memorial playground lavatories drawings