Concealing the Unmentionable: Sight, Sense and the Public Restroom

The labyrinth entrance to the Cavanaugh hall bathroom

The “labyrinth” entrance to the Cavanaugh hall bathroom

The cinder-block walls and windowless offices of IUPUI’s Cavanaugh Hall have aged rather gracelessly over more than four decades.  The utterly functional brutal modernist building will inevitably meet the wrecking ball someday, but in the meantime administrators extend the decaying structure’s life with a host of makeshift changes.  The most recent renovations have come to a series of women’s restrooms (men’s apparently will undergo similar changes soon), which are now appointed with new tile, another set of toilets, and a slightly different floor plan.  None of those changes has prompted more fevered discussion than the installation of a labyrinth entrance; that is, the new bathrooms have no doors.  The labyrinth design is intended to minimize germ transmission and make restrooms more secure spaces, and nothing is literally visible from the adjoining public hallway; nevertheless, the absence of doors and the sonic amplification provided by the tile have unleashed a host of anxieties that illuminate the unmentionable, underscore the divisions between public and private spaces, and highlight the limits of functional restroom design.

The definitive study of the washroom is perhaps still architect Alexander Kira’s 1966 masterpiece The Bathroom.  Based on extensive research between 1958 and 1966, Kira ambitiously approached the bathroom as an architectural, functional, ergonomic, and social space.  Kira pilloried architects’ sloppy bathroom designs and the century of architectural planning that viewed bathrooms as mere afterthoughts.  Kira instead ethnographically delved into the “bathroom experience” as a design issue with concrete social and psychological dimensions that needed to be placed at the heart of spatial planning.  Among other things, Kira systematically dissected such hither-to unexamined issues as the physics of urine trajectories, the space between urinals, the physiology of seated positioning, the cleaning ineffectiveness of toilet paper (a passage not for those apprehensive of cooties), and the anxieties created by the acoustics of elimination.

A Paris "pissoir" (public urinal), 1865 (image State Library of Victoria).

A Paris “pissoir” (public urinal), 1865 (image State Library of Victoria).

Public restrooms have existed for millennia, normally right alongside public elimination and long before indoor domestic toilets were introduced.  In the 2nd Century AD the Roman Empire included a vast number of public latrines, often within or next to bathhouses or fountains and accommodating 12-15 people at a time.  The first public toilet appeared in Britain in the early 13th century, and it was a unisex facility.  The pissoir (a public urinal) was introduced in Paris in 1841, and while they began to disappear after World War II there remain a handful scattered about Europe (e.g., Berlin, Stockholm, and Copenhagen).  London’s 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition included the “retiring rooms,” which were the country’s first public restrooms with flush toilets; 827,280 visitors used the toilets, paying a pence each for admission.

Sheila Cavanagh’s Queering Bathrooms notes that the first gender-segregated public restrooms in Europe appeared at a Paris ball in 1739, but few permanent public restrooms for women appeared before the late-19th century.  Andrew Brown-May and Peg Fraser’s analysis of Melbourne, Australia’s public conveniences begin with a street urinal installed in 1859, but women’s restrooms did not follow until 1902.  Americans began to informally segregate public restrooms by sex at about the same moment; Terry S. Kogan notes that the first law requiring Americans to segregate public washrooms by sex came in Massachusetts in 1887, and 43 states had the same legislation by 1920.

Public restroom at Cathays Park, Cardiff, now a Grade 2 Listed Building but out of commission (image Philip Halling).

Public restroom at Cathays Park, Cardiff, now a Grade 2 Listed Building but out of commission (image Philip Halling).

Many of the disciplinary codes regulating how we view restrooms and elimination have deep historical roots, but in the past 75 years the concrete material realities of contemporary bathrooms may have made toilet habits even more private.  In 1940 over one-third of American homes had no flush toilet at all (including a staggering 81% of homes in Mississippi), and while that national average fell to 10% in 1960, eight states still had more than one-quarter of their residents not using a flush toilet.  In contrast, around one-third of all homes built in 2013 have three or more bathrooms, a percentage that has tripled since 1988 and means we can nearly always find a place to secretively answer nature’s call (though 1.6 million Americans still do not have complete indoor plumbing, with a toilet, shower/bath, and running water).

Public toilets are distinctively prosaic and unseen spaces outside polite discussion, but the uneasy reception for the new Cavanaugh restrooms confirms Alexander Kira’s counsel that the bathroom cannot be reduced to a merely functional space.  More than a half century after Kira championed the bathroom as a space worthy of reflective design, public restrooms routinely remain purely functional spaces in which design is dictated by hygienic considerations rather than aesthetics or social experience.  Household bathrooms have perhaps secured somewhat more claim to designers’ attention; the home bathroom has gradually been defined as a comforting “sanctuary,” but this is certainly because the home bathroom defined as a space of recovery and relaxation supports a whole consumer industry of firms hawking toilets, sauna’s, decorative goods, and perfumed soaps.

A public pissoir in Berlin, 2012 (image PeterDargatz).

A public pissoir in Berlin, 2012 (image PeterDargatz).

On the one hand, the absence of doors opening onto a busy hallway illuminates the privacy expectations we have for any bathroom.  Labyrinth entrances are designed to reduce the transmission of germs and increase security by transmitting sounds from the restroom, but the door-less entrances have created a host of anxieties.  We may silently concede the realities of nature’s call, but we routinely attempt to conceal its most un-ignorable sensory dimensions (for examples of efforts to mask bathroom acoustics, see the Akatu app–which fakes the sound of a shower or water tap–, the Japanese “Magical Water Princess” machine, or Sonic Circuits’ “Music for Restrooms” playlist).  Our apprehensions about bodily cleanliness and control are amplified in public restrooms, a self-awareness that has a history reaching well into 19th century bodily discipline codes.  The belief that one is potentially offensive in terms of odors, sound, or visibility is often accompanied by an unreasonable desire for strictly silent, odorless, and imperceptible elimination.  In 2004, for instance, Oprah Winfrey admitted that she was unable to use the bathroom during her jury duty unless the remaining jurists sang “Kumbaya” to drown out the acoustics.  The Gullah spiritual perhaps assumes new meaning drowning out Oprah’s toilet time, but her apprehension is not at all atypical of a desire to conceal one’s own offensiveness while we hope others will restrain themselves as well.  Alexander Kira argued that apprehensions about urination acoustics reflected a worry that it mimicked the sounds of sex itself, drawing a link between the privatization of both sexuality and elimination.

On the other hand, there is an interesting material and ethnographic opening to examine how architecture reproduces body disciplines and structures how users experience their bodies. Some anonymous designer developed these new lavatory spaces armed with concrete design guidelines (e.g., the room must meet ADA requirements), cost directives, and some mysterious 21st-century lavatory construction standards, but it likely included little if any ethnographic research in the Cavanaugh hallways.  Nevertheless, despite our exasperation with architects and designers, those of us who use toilets remain enormously resistant to changes in restroom design:  some observers thoughtfully advocate for aesthetic and social changes to restrooms ranging from signage to unisex facilities to squat toilets, but most users remain firmly committed to the antiseptic public toilet in which our business is transacted within a minute.   Apparently our desire to keep our toilet habits subterranean is stronger than our passing desire for a lovely loo.



Kathryn H. Anthony and Megham Dufresne

2007 Potty Parity in Perspective: Gender and Family Issues in Planning and Designing Public RestroomsJournal of Planning Literature 21:267-294.


Andrew Brown-May and Peg Fraser

2009 Gender, Respectability, and Public Convenience in Melbourne, Australia, 1859-1902.  In Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender, Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner (editors), pp.75-89 Temple University Press, Philadelphia.


Sheila L. Cavanagh

2010 Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygienic Imagination.  University of Toronto Press, Toronto.


Marisol F. Cortez

2009 The Ecology of Scatology: Excretory Encounters in American Cultural Life.  PhD Dissertation, University of California, Davis.


Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner (editors)

2009 Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.


Stavroula V. Goutsos

2005 Public Washroom Design: Revealing the (Un)Natural Truth About Gender.  Master of Interior Design Thesis, University of Manitoba.


Susan Helen James

1996 “Bedroom Problems”: Architecture, Gender, and Sexuality, 1945-63.  Master’s Thesis, McGill University.


Alexander Kira

1967 The Bathroom: Criteria for Design.  Bantam, New York.


Terry S. Kogan

2010 Sex Separation: The Cure-All for Victorian Social Anxiety.  In Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing, Harvey Molotch and Laura Noren (editors), pp145-164.  NYU Press, New York.


Michael Mok

1966 Blame the Outmoded US BathroomLife 20 May:84C-86.


Harvey Molotch and Laura Noren (editors)

2010 Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing.  NYU Press, New York.


Ernesto Morales

2007 The Meaning of the Contemporary Bathroom.  PhD Dissertation, University of Montreal.


Maj-Britt Quitzau and Inge Røpke

2009 Bathroom Transformation: From Hygiene to Well-Being?  Home Cultures 6(3):219-242.  (subscription access)


Jerome Tognoli

1980 Differences in Women’s and Men’s Responses to Domestic SpaceSex Roles 6(6):833-842.



Berlin pissoir image from PeterDargatz

Cathays Park public restroom image from Philip Halling

Charles Marville, Urinoir en ardoise à 3 stalles, Chaussée du Maine, ca. 1865 from Wikimedia Commons via State Library of Victoria

Posted on September 4, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on Iconography ♠ Incomplete and commented:
    Architecture biases. The article clearly extricates the hidden anatomical residues and boneworks of industrial heavy or rather suburbia mentality in keeping suppressed the downtrodden or derelict aspects of buildings or buildings in general.

  2. As someone who suffers immensely from anxieties featured by the acoustics of elimination, I definitely loved this column. Thanks Paul!

  3. Ahh … thanks for the brainfood : ) As a designer, I entirely appreciate this post. It is a difficult balancing act for a designer to not only satisfy their clients, but to attempt to expand the client’s horizons by offering innovative solutions to old problems. If we don’t attempt to challenge client sensibilities, then we are just pandering and not really earning our hourly which is based upon our expertise, after all. I am wondering why the architects didn’t remind the clients that most airports have these labyrynthine bathroom entrances, and I can’t imagine your hallway is more travelled than a typical airport corridor leading to the boarding gates.

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