In my training as an architect there were several times when I had to design those spaces for relief. These were peculiar moments in which the grotesque sounds and fumes of our bodies had to be neutralised through architectural solutions such as “natural ventilation” or “acoustic insulation”. Today I realise that we architects are constantly talking about what we think a good dump should be, feel, (not) smell and sound like, even if we don’t like to use words to discuss this messy issue.
In fact, I believe that the relevance of this matter transcends the simple task of sending bowel creations into the underground world of drainage pipes. For many slaves of capitalism such as myself, the toilet represents one of the few spaces for personal reflection, a place for total consciousness of one’s body and its volcanic workings. If everything is going well, it is there where the best ideas and most memorable epiphanies come to our bored brains. This is, of course, when our visit to the porcelain throne is not accompanied by the alienating presence of a smartphone. Doing so, apart from turning your phone into a petri dish for the growth of who knows what, is taking away the possibility of a transcendental experience.
Although I will not be discussing the relationship between our bottoms and brains (I still believe there is a connection, though), I will try to understand what I think of defecation through the best evidence I have got: the toilet plans of some of the projects I designed during my bachelor years, as well as some memorable toilets I have encountered throughout my life.
The first picture shows the main bathroom of the apartment where I grew up. This space makes me very emotional: there I learnt to push and flush. Lit by two windows, turquoise coloured appliances and lime-yellow tiles on the walls create a vibrant, yet peaceful atmosphere. A randomly placed image of a fish made with coloured mortar decorates the floor, making it an ideal focus for one’s attention while waiting for the miracle to happen. Despite this richness, there are some issues with the tiles; namely, there are some small misalignments and incorrect modulations that my imagination has magnified. In fact, those mistakes made me conscious of how important it is to be careful when detailing bathrooms, especially those areas that the user will be facing while doing the deed. The pooping human is a careful beholder that should never be underestimated.
We have all designed one of these. This specific one comes from a second year studio that focused on producing houses despite their quality. The teachers, musty admirers of Le Corbusier, wanted us to replicate his Unité d’Habitation in Marseille with some minor alterations. Legitimised by the old master, they would not hesitate to tell us that the bathrooms needed to be moved away from windows. Despised, toilets became coffins where people went to suffocate in their own fumes.
Milan, 2016. The Fondazione Prada, designed by OMA, had been inaugurated one year earlier. I was not expecting anything special from the toilets; if they had spent that much money in putting gold leaf and aluminium foam cladding for the project’s facades, I could imagine that costs were reduced in the lavatories. I was wrong, of course. Metal grates were used in the floor, walls, and ceilings. Some were green, some black, others had a transparent sheet of polycarbonate on top, or a mirror behind. The toilet seats were a single piece of steel, reminding of a post-industrial techno club, but with a fancy twist. Prada, Milan and Koolhaas, a holy trinity of fashion, were also represented in these faecal cubicles. It was, in fact, a space where one’s stool was treated as a luxury Prada purse. I liked that.
This is part of a design for a funeral home that I did in my fifth year. Too many poetic intentions in the ground floor forced me to squeeze all the service spaces in the basement, with slightly disturbing consequences... In fact, the toilets where the mourners were supposed to release their sorrows was next to space for embalming and putting makeup on cadavers. Because of this, and despite my efforts, a sequence of wrong turns could have led to gruesome encounters between living and dead which, at the same time, might have required another visit to the toilet. Through this mistake I learned that there is a fragile peace that comes after discharging one’s bowels that should not be disturbed. Surprises are to be avoided, and a quiet transition to the outside world must be ensured.
These are the plan and section of a bathroom and clothes-washing space of a support facility for the homeless. It is a small part of a larger design of four buildings I made for my bachelors’ thesis. Although the scale of this project did not allow for further detailing, some ideas are clear enough to discuss. Cubicles are large and equipped enough to be called rooms. A symmetrical configuration emphasizes monumentality, and the sound of falling water coming from a Louis-Kahn-inspired pond quiets the mind and relaxes the sphincters. The roof is curved, letting plenty of natural light and air into the space, and giving it the aura of an excremental cathedral. Above, kids play in a park, unaware of the shit show taking place underneath.
So, what is a good crap? Or better, where should it happen? At this point, it should be clear that I think of toilets as temples for celebrating those bodies that do their best to expel their worst. This was not always the case, of course, but I am glad to say that I see evolution in the way I conceive dumping grounds. The repercussions of this in my practice as an urbanist are yet to be seen, although the idea of turd-based urbanism sounds inspiring. What I now know is that there is still plenty to learn and many toilets to reflect upon.