Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Architecture of Public Lavatories

I found this lovely public lavatory on September Beach in the Lincoln National Park.  It is a spiky, sculptural poem in wood and corrugated tin.  Antipodean steampunk.
            Creative re-imaginings of the Aussie Shed are a major - and fruitful - part of the modern Aussie vernacular (but arguably only the modern Aussie Vernacular.  After working the form into my project work at architecture school in North America, I was roundly informed that "Nobody designs like that. Even if you like that sort of thing. Which we don't.") but this little construct has a jewel-like delicacy that I find particularly enchanting.
            Its arched roof floating over spindles of rust-treated iron, this little building references all the required vernacular elements - the tin shed roof, the rusticated woolshed walls, the field-stone foundations, the old farm equipment rusting in old barns all across the wheat belt - all without a single nod to kitsch or self-dissolution in the bland tin walls of Aussie Modern.  Instead, these elements are turned into a spare and elegant vocabulary, the limited forms given sculptural discipline and precise attention to balance.
            Particularly I love the curve of the slatted outer shell.  The rough stone foundation gives anchoring context to the high sweep of the floating roof, and a public park on the edge of the Southern Ocean becomes the perfect - the only conceivable - site for this structure.  The little building is set perfectly into this place - it simply wouldn't - couldn't - belong in an urban park or a metropolitan seaside promenade.  The stone walls make it need the bay and the knowledge of cliffs stretching out past the horizon.

Beyond the essential loveliness of this particular little structure, I admit to being fascinated by the architecture of public lavatories. Architecture is, by its nature, showy - a very public display.  Balancing this narcissistic objective with a sensitive handling of our contradictory expectations of private self effacement is a complicated - and heavily loaded - exercise. (A bit like this sentence.)
            My obsession began when I was an undergraduate assigned to design a public lavatory for the Boston Common. The building would stand on a prominent swell of ground in an area of major foot traffic adjacent to the Boylston Street subway stop.
My project would be Confrontational!  Yet Secretly Sensitive!  About Overt Exposure and Apparent Voyeurism!  And the Contradictory Expectations Generated by Apparent Public Display, But in its Applied Utility, Also the Practical Application of Effectual Concealment!
(I also learned to talk like this.)
            I based my design on a contemporary church built in Seattle - I cannot, now, recall the name of either the building or the architect, but please imagine glorious and towering concrete walls sliced through at all levels by long panels of colored glass.
            The central visual "moment" in my lavatory was one I'm still quite proud of - the structure was illuminated by a great shaft of structural glass thrusting up through the center of the building.  But for the actual lavatory cubicles I muddied the design considerably with my "light art" - a double concrete shell slashed through with stained glass windows - the layers offset so that the light - if not the interested gaze of passers-by - could come right through.
            Imagine this concrete lavatory cave in Massachusetts in January. Cold and clammy and your privates are tinted pink. Delicious. It was an overwrought undergraduate muddle, but the reviewers were very kind and appreciated what I had tried to do with the light.

Only once my Grand Design was in its final stages did I start to think about the actual psychological context of the public bog.  I began to read like crazy: about eco-toilets, sensitive schemes for grey-water regeneration, dry-compost toilets for the outback, solid-gold johns soft and slippery to the touch, and websites for travelers from all sorts of cultures confronting "horrible foreign toilets" with terrified outrage, frozen contempt and, occasionally, remarkable insight and grace.
            These websites gave the most insightful stories: the post-war German toilet with a catchment shelf for the inspection of parasites in feces. The peculiar eliminatory politics of the trans-Siberian railway, whose lavatories must cater to all cultures within the Soviet Union - the resulting bureaucratic compromise being a cast iron western toilet with foot-plated dug into the toilet seat, so that the nervy traveler squatted three feet above the floor, bracing herself against the walls of the cubicle and praying for good aim as the train lurched and rattled its way along soviet-era railway tracks.
            Toward the end of the project, we had a guest lecture by a Master's student whose graduate thesis was a really nervy sort of public loo.  It was a cell - a womb - a meditation chamber - encapsulated within an egg shaped shell.  The toilet was wired in ways hitherto undreamed-of: the light inside strengthened and changed color depending on your emissions and corresponding colors raced and flickered across the outside of the shell as you performed within.  When you flushed, the entire shell contracted, pressing in against you ("Just like a mother's contractions when she's flushing you out of the womb!") letting the entranced audience outside know exactly where in the proceedings you stood. (or crouched, trembling through acid flashbacks to 1970's semi-baked Fruedian psycho-theory.)
            Wow. But my very favorite-est cheek-puckering real world example of Applied Voyeuristic theory must be the two-way mirror cube. Monica Bonvicini, I salute you.

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