Public Toilets by Aleksandra Wasilkowska

The form and location of public toilets reflect the way humanity treats its own body, what kind of relations between sexes exist in it, where lays the border between the unclean and the sacred. The histories of progress, hygiene, politics and taboo intertwine in toilets. Show me your toilets, and I will tell you who you are! In the Roman Empire baths and latrines were used not only for the hygiene, but also for the celebration. They were a place of culture and socialisation, several people could use them at the same time. In the medieval defensive architecture toilets were located in the same place as towers — as far as possible from main buildings of a castle. Thanks to such a strategy, epidemics could be avoided, excrements like an enemy were disappearing in a moat, outside the walls. In turn, in the French Baroque a toilet returns to salons in form of a decorative pot and a throne. An audience in the palace granted by the Louis XIV “sitting on the throne” was the highest honour for his subordinates.

One day the king, being on his close-stool, showed Villon the arms of France, and said to him, „Dost thou see what respect I have for thy French kings? I have none of their arms anywhere but in this backside, near my close-stool.”

François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Book IV

Today a toilet is the smallest and the most private room in our apartments, but it is here, like in the space-time tunnel, where the private connects with the public sphere. In this place all fluids of our bodies merge into one organic urban city sewage system. Clues of Slavoj Žižek’s inquires lead from the toilet to the public sphere, where basing on the toilet bowl the philosopher tries to decipher the ideological structure of the ancient societies. According to Žižek, a shelf in the toilet bowl designed to contemplate one’s own body waste, may testify to an anal mentality and obsessive tendency to analyse reality. And that directly influences our policy toward the unclean. Also a method of flushing water and a specific choreography of the toiled bowl, as well as the dramaturgy of disappearance of impurities, may reflect the nation’s temperament, its sensitivity to forms of expression and communication.

Toilets in modern water closets rise up from the floor like water lilies. The architect does all he can to make the body forget how paltry it is, and to make man ignore what happens to his intestinal wastes after the water from the tank flushes them down the drain. Even though the sewer pipelines reach far into our houses with their tentacles, they are carefully hidden from view, and we are happily ignorant of the invisible Venice of shit underlying our bathrooms, bedrooms, dance halls, and parliaments.

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

King SizeStill from Kingsajz movie, dir. by Juliusz Machulski, in 1988 © Studio Filmowe KADR

Until nowadays there is a discussion if a dry or a wet toilet can revolutionise the future of humanity. The dispute is also about which form is more adequate for health and safety of our body, a crouching or a sitting one. Already in 1970’s professor of architecture Alexander Kira in his book The Bathroom published a dozen of analysis of typologies and ergonomics of sanitation appliances, and human body’s poses related to them, in order to come to a conclusion that a sitting toilet — a trophy of the Western sanitation culture — causes a lot of diseases of urinary and intestines systems, and that the most natural and healthiest is a crouching toilet, widely recognised as primitive. Thanks to it our guts adopt the most appropriate angle and shape.

Alexander KiraAlexander Kira, The Bathroom

He wiped himself with four small squares of folded tissue and flushed the toilet. He went over to the bidet, sat down, filled it with warm water, and meticulously soaped his anus, phallus, testicles, pubis, crotch, and buttocks. Then he rinsed himself off and dried himself with a clean towel. Today was Tuesday, foot day. He had divided the week up among different organs arid members: Monday, hands; Wednesday, ears; Thursday, nose; Friday, hair; Saturday, eyes; and Sunday, skin. This was the variable element of the nocturnal ritual, what left it open to possible change and reformation. Concentrating each night on just one area of his body allowed him to carry out the task of cleaning it and preserving it with greater thoroughness and attention to detail; and by so doing, to know and to love it more. With each individual organ and area the master of his labours for one day, perfect impartiality with regard to the care of the whole was assured: there were no favouritisms, no postponements, no odious hierarchies with respect to the overall treatment and detailed consideration of part and whole. He thought: “My body is that impossibility: an egalitarian society.”

Mario Vargas Llosa, In Praise of the Stepmother

In the toilets in public buildings the number and location of booths might also contribute to the discrimination because of class and sex. Movements for the introduction of a toilet parity, so called potty parity and for the popularisation of transgender toilets rely on statistics by researcher Sandra K. Rawls, which show that a woman spends in the toilet on average three times more time than men (almost three minutes to 83.6 seconds).1 The lack of an adequate number of toilets for women in the public buildings can be easily observed during any intermission at a philharmonic or a theatre. The queue for the ladies’ room is usually twice as long as for the male toilet. The division into male and female toilets not only discriminates against women, due to the difficult access to them, but it is also anachronistic in a broader sense, it does not take into account the other, that is, all those who do not fit into the binary schema “female” and “male.”

Pieter Bruguel(Left) Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Pissing Against the Moon, 1558, © Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerpen [To urinate against the moon means to waste time doing futile activities.]

(Right)Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Netherlandish Proverbs,
1559 (fragment) Image scource: Wikimedia Commons /
Google Art Project [To defecate together into one hole means to be
inseparable friends.]

The lack of public and free toilets in urban space, in parks, in public transportation interchanges, may determine ways of getting around a city. The toilets disappearing from main squares of modernising cities  (often they are converted into beer bars), their absence near playgrounds or parks exclude a large part of the population, especially children, women and the elderly, from a free access to the public space. Undoubtedly, the sanitation policy of governments influences substantially us all. Everyone spends about three years of his or her life in a toilet. But still one-third of the world’s population do not have access to toilets or sewage systems. On the availability of toilets depend not only our education and health, but also our life. The toilet strategy should be an important component of an international policy and a planning of modern cities for the egalitarian societies.
Let’s piss, vote, build toilets — not monuments!

1 An article Potty Privileging in Perspective. Gender and Family Issues in Toilet Design, by Kathryn H. Anthony and Meghan Dufresne. The article was issued in Ladies and Gents. Public Toilets and Gender, edited by Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner, Temple University Press, Philadelphia