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Toilets: Evolution or Revolution?

By EM on September 29, 2014 in Clients, Exhibitions, Industry Publicity

A guest post by Professor Barbara Penner, senior lecturer in Architectural History at the Bartlett School of Architecure, UCL, and author of Bathroom.

My first ever attempt at Pecha Kucha: 20 slides, 20 seconds for each slide. As an academic, used to developing ideas over a leisurely 50 minutes, the thought is both terrifying and preposterous. Can one say something meaningful in 6 minutes and 40 seconds?

I read up the Pecha Kucha guidelines: it recommends that one should develop a narrative, something that holds the whole presentation together. This gives me some focus and, when I sit down to think about, a topic quickly emerges: what has compelled me to devote a significant part of my career to talking and writing about toilets?

It is a question I am constantly asked and it’s a good one. Why? What’s the appeal? Why can’t I just talk about ‘nice’ subjects once in a while?

So, the Pecha Kucha becomes my account of my scholarly journey through toilets. I start at the beginning: 1995, when I was a Masters student at UCL, looking for a subject…

And I read about a major controversy that broke out in Camden Town, 1900, over a proposal to build a public convenience for women at a busy junction, leading to strong and sometimes violent protests from the locals. Even George Bernard Shaw stepped into the fray and further stirred the pot, by vocally supporting the women’s right to a public convenience. (He even wrote an essay about it, ‘The Unmentionable Case for Women’s Suffrage’.)

The more I learned about the Camden Town toilet the more the story amazed me – how could such a banal, ordinary thing as a public toilet for women could cause such moral outrage?

But then I began to understand that it wasn’t the toilet per se that caused the outrage so much as what it represented – the right of women, especially working-class women in this case, to move freely through London’s streets. And this was my first revelation: that when people argue over toilets what they’re usually fighting about is the right of certain social groups to occupy public space. Toilets are a powerful way of signalling status, inclusion, and of maintaining social order and certain cultural values.

This is why they’re so fiercely fought over, even today (especially today). And this is why I’m so interested in them: toilets reveal many of society’s most cherished beliefs about gender, class, religion, decency, the body, and so on.

Yet, most people resist thinking about toilets this way or questioning their design. Instead, we’ve normalized them – we insist on seeing them as functional and rational; their details as trivial, unimportant. This refusal to talk about toilets is like a form of collective repression – and it goes very deep.

This repression is reinforced by the design of our whole sanitation system, which is designed to deal with our waste invisibly, in underground pipes and out-of-town treatment facilities. It is literally ‘flush and forget’. As our society faces new social and environmental pressures – ageing infrastructure, natural disasters, water shortages – can this collective refusal to talk toilets be sustained?

The reason I began to ask these kinds of questions was that, in 2010, I was given the chance to go to Durban, South Africa to see examples of how the state was tackling these issues. What’s so striking in Durban is that they’ve fully embraced the fact that water-borne sewers and flush toilets won’t work in many areas due to water scarcity. These dry toilets are a way to provide sanitation to people who otherwise would get left out.

I saw a lot to admire, but I also saw a lot of problems. One is that people don’t like these toilets and don’t use them – there’s no dignity in their construction, no attempt to appeal to the user. And I came away from this experience convinced that, whatever the future holds, designers have a really important role to play in terms of shifting attitudes towards toilets and of mediating between engineers and users.

The design community needs to be thinking more holistically and more creatively about toilets – to think about ways to make them less water-hungry, less standardized, more user-friendly. These redesigns might be engineering-led or designer-led, high-minded or playful – ideally, they’ll be all of these things.

Above all, we need to start talking about toilets. And this is what I’ve been trying to do in my own recent projects, including the TOTO exhibition. These are really attempts get people to ask ‘why do our toilets look this way’ and not that? And what would it mean to have another type of toilet?

Barbara Penner’s exhibition, Toilets: Evolution or Revolution? can be seen at TOTO, 140-142 St John Street, London EC1V 4UA, until the end of October 2014.

Bathroom, published by Reaktion, can be purchased via Amazon here.

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Outhouse, Alabama
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Sanyo Ultrasonic Bathing Machine, Osaka World Expo 1970