May 10, 2019

Public Amenity

an ode to the humble toilet block

I’d like to bring attention to an unsung Australian hero. This unlikely champion is there for anyone choosing to spend their weekends driving along the coastline. It’s there for those of us with jobs that require countless hours of driving through sprawling suburbs. It’s there on a Sunday afternoon at a local sports ground or lined up for your convenience in between dance floors at a music festival.

I’m referring to a simple little structure which up until recently has received little credit – the humble toilet block. Since wrought iron urinals were erected on the streets of Melbourne in 18591, the public toilet has developed into a vital part of our modern existence. More than merely a receiver of one of our required rituals, these spaces provide important public amenity to parents, the elderly and people with disabilities. They offer a moment of refuge and respite in our busy lives of ‘doing’ when we can take pause and think.

Their potential in this regard has been known for quite some time – the term privy was once used to describe a king or queen’s confidant who would sit with them while they went about their royal business, adding meaning to the phrase ‘porcelain throne’.

As our urban environment grows denser there is increased pressure on public facilities to provide for their communities. This has resulted in a peculiar phenomenon – ‘the designer dunny’. Sydneysiders may have noticed the sprouting of unusual, intriguing and often pretty little buildings in public parks, along highways or at the end of gravel roads. There was a time when this type of building had seedy associations. It seems, however, that since the 2000 Olympics, when local architects Durbach Block and Jaggers built three toilets for the event, designers and councils have realised their potential. Since then, the chance to design and build a public toilet has become a sought-after milestone for architects trying to establish themselves. It’s one of the few ways for up-and-coming practices to break into the realm of public architecture. Making this jump is not easy, especially when councils require designers to have experience in public buildings before they can offer them the chance.

Illustration: Jordan Silver

Architects like Sam Crawford and John Choi, two of Sydney’s best known ‘dunny designers’, receive regular phone calls from young architects seeking advice on how to get hold of one of these projects. The transition from private to public works is difficult for good reason – public projects are complex and expensive – making a public toilet a good ‘break-through’ opportunity as they are often part of larger projects managed by Landscape Architects and Urban Designers who shoulder more of the responsibility.

Both Sam and John have established themselves as top-notch practitioners in Sydney thanks in no small part to their dunnies. If for Beatriz Colomina, the 20th Century Architect made their career ‘first with a name, then a chair and then a house’, perhaps the 21st Century Architect in Australia makes theirs with a name, then a house and only then – a toilet.

Throughout their development, we’ve had various names for these structures. From outhouse to ‘public convenience’, our definition of the role of these spaces has been shifting along with our values. Now referred to commonly as ‘amenities’, it’s worth asking just what kind of amenities we need. It’s obvious that we require clean, robust facilities when nature inevitably calls, but what of our less pragmatic needs?

The ritual of entering one of these buildings and assuming the position in one of its stalls encourages a contemplative state of mind. Once safe within its walls, one is granted privacy, quiet and calm – rare in the public realm. What’s more, these sacred spaces are free of charge – even rarer. Designers that are sensitive to the innate intimacy of these spaces have pushed hard to tease it out. Small things like replacing stainless steel fixtures with porcelain ones immediately tell the user to ‘take care’ simply by the fact that they are more fragile.Choosing materials for the exterior that are tough and robust helps to prevent vandalism whilst the best examples of designer dunnies offer facilities beyond the toilet itself such as seating, baby change facilities and exterior wash basins. Some go as far as to incorporate shade shelters, gathering spaces, small offices or kiosks.

Illustration: Jordan Silver

Sam Crawford’s North Bondi Amenities and John Choi’s Lizard Log Amenities are two such cases that have set the standard for future works of this kind in Sydney. They offer a future glimpse of these buildings as ‘community hubs’. They’ve also created an awareness of the potential of small public buildings generally and helped cause a growing trend to remove and replace the dreaded self-cleaning toilets that are scattered around Sydney’s metropolitan suburbs, for fear of having the doors automatically open at just the wrong moment.

The combined efforts of innovative architects and their willing clients have seen humble toilet blocks evolve into thoughtful and striking symbols in their local context. It’s natural, then, to wonder what the future of these buildings may look like. Whilst our local amenities have come a long way from their dimly-lit and seedy predecessors, one only needs to look to some international examples to gauge their potential.

Sou Fujimoto Architects have built a public toilet in Ichihara, Japan, that sits within a walled garden. Users can appreciate the beautiful surrounding landscape from their seat whilst maintaining a sense of privacy and security. In London, artist Monica Bonvicini created a toilet encased in a one-way glass box that allows the occupant to remain completely in the ‘public eye’ while passer’s by see only their own reflection. These examples hint towards the potential for design to create unique, beautiful and even challenging experiences for the public – if designers are given the chance to do so.

Illustration: Jordan Silver

When speaking to Sam Crawford about the public reception of his acclaimed North Bondi Amenities, it’s surprising to find that members of the public have criticized the building as an over-spend of government money. For his Marsden Park amenities, John Choi had designed a structure that would be wrapped in a trellis and eventually be covered in plants. Whilst he initially had support for the idea, it was eventually decided that the maintenance of such a design would be too costly and the risk of vandalism too high to follow through. The final structure sits in its context unplanted, like a skeleton without a skin.

These insights point to a gap between the perception of these projects and their latent potential to further enhance our daily experience. This is nothing new, it’s been the same story whenever an idea has been pushed far enough to become something unique. It’s nice to imagine, however, that future iterations of these designer dunnies could incorporate garden sanctuaries, harvest solar energy, treat sewage by natural means or provide shelter to the less fortunate.

It’s been a long road for the humble toilet block. Once charged with serving one of our basic needs alone, these buildings now facilitate some of our most powerful cultural rituals along with our most private moments. They’ve become a prized commission for architects, proving instrumental in forging the careers of some of Sydney’s highest-level practitioners. They have become symbols of inclusiveness and generosity for their respective communities.

With a bit of luck, they’ll get the recognition they deserve and evolve into the nucleus of amenity and activity that they are needed for.


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