Part 1: El Caganer
Whether you are Christian or not, you know the nativity scene on display during the holiday season. We have Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, angels, and other folks bearing gold and wisdom to witness the newborn Baby Jesus. Lurking in the background is a figurine with his pants down, frozen in time while defecating. He is known as El Caganer in Catalan and in English, The Pooper.
Arguably the holiest moment in Christianity, why is defecation part of the nativity scene? The farmers and peasants of 18th-century Catalonia believe that this is an act of fertilizing the earth, signaling bountiful harvests in the future. Within the set of the nativity scene, thanks to the figurine's deposit, the ground is fertilized and in good condition for the following year's nativity scene. While El Caganer (Figure 1) might not fit in with the biblical symbols of the scene, his appearance reminds us of the humbling human condition during the birth of Jesus.
With the spread of the contemporary Western mindset on surveillance of body odor and excretion, everybody is ashamed of urinating or defecating in public (even behind closed doors). We no longer "fertilize" the earth openly like El Caganer anymore. Now, we do our business quickly, flush, and forget about it. We take other steps to completely disown the products that make us human: urine and feces.
Part 2: The Stall
Such disassociation from things like this becomes the true downfall of architecture and design, where everyone is so mortified by their own waste that the evolution of bathrooms and toilets has been minimally functional and mostly about noise and smell canceling as much as possible. Toilets are designed not for human comfort. They are designed to suppress and remove our waste before we are aware of its appearance.
While in a seating position, what are the typical activities we engage in? We take on tasks with our upper bodies, such as reading, writing, eating, drinking, etc. It is a posture to keep the lower body at a resting position. Within the criteria of defecation and urination, it has been proven that sitting at 90 degrees restricts the stomach and rectal muscles greatly, as its purpose is to maintain the lower body's passiveness rather than promoting active pushing motions. Thus, while designers preach on ideal anthropometry, most Western ideologies have ratified an incorrect posture for excretion. To detach from the stressful reality of our workdays, students, staff, and professors of the BK retreat into the toilet stalls for sizable bathroom breaks of 5 to 20 minutes. The toilet seat should at least accomodate some comfort for this type of toilet habit. However, the toilet was not made with human comfort in mind; rather, it has been engineered as a pipe opening, casted as a chair to whisk human waste away. The toilets at the BK are typical Western toilet, thus, they add to the decline of healthy toilet posture, putting more pressure onto the spine and thighs and provide zero support underneath (Figure 2).
We have been pushing things out without proper seating bones support. With the design mismatches the user's habit, the result is discomforting. Poor toilet posture leads to limited circulation in the legs causing numbness and consitpation (Figure 3). This lack of support is similar to doing push-ups with only one arm. Therefore, the ceramic thrones we retreat to "do business" have evolved into uncomfortable chairs with no sitting support. Toilet design is often glazed over in design discourse because human excretion, as much as it is an essential part of building codes, is a taboo and unfeminine topic to elaborate further than its bare minimum contribution to the completion of a building.
Part 3: The Gendered Bathrooms
While our toilet culture is bound to ill-fitting toilet posture for the rest of the Anthropocene, the toilet also denies our comfort, and its environment restricts our gender configurations. Once an empowering victory for the 1890s feminist movement to have women in public bathrooms, it is now another barrier designers and architects must conquer to recognize people's gender diversity.
The historical strand of gendered bathrooms dates back to the 1860s, when women's public latrines were first installed at department stores in Central London. Building codes have evolved exponentially over the past centuries, and they have introduced "best practices" to accommodate appropriate bathroom layouts based on the users' needs. While there has been no requirement to design public bathrooms that steer away from the normative men and women separation, there is a consideration on reducing the number of toilet stalls in bathrooms for more urinals in the men's and increasing the stall counts for women's (Figure 4). While this is the narrowest measure to make the bathrooms more comfortable, the reality needs to pay more attention to these best practice guidelines.
I measured three sets of bathrooms at our faculty to disclose this truth. Unfortunately, the theory has been proven to be a reality, with the 2020s bathroom layout reflecting the same design configuration as bathrooms in the 1860s. It remains binary and asymmetrical (Figure 5). Even though I asked for permission from the custodians to enter the men's bathroom, a security personnel was summoned to question my request to be in the men's bathroom. It is obviously absurd to see a woman with a measuring tape in a men's bathroom; nevertheless, while we're speaking about inclusivity in the public realm, why does the toilet remain under severe binary exclusivity? Arguments advocating for gender segregation pertain to safety and privacy, predominantly stemmed from embarrassment on smell, gender vulnerable insecurity, and fear of the opposite sex. As cleanliness is a big concern, the women on the BK's custodial team complete their job in both men's and women's bathrooms, showing that such gender exclusivity applies strictly to the users, which renders the argument of safety and privacy in gendered bathrooms obsolete.
More than 160 years later, the obvious asymmetry between the men's and women's bathrooms remains the same, and it exists within the Bouwkunde.
While architecture penetrates various aspects of our ideologies and routines, the only thing that lies dormant and neglected takes shape as the public bathroom. At the BK, we assume the role as high-caliber individuals learning and practicing architecture, and we refer to historical contexts to conjure up design innovations. However, the public bathroom layout continues to be left behind by these innovations, where most of us resort to cookie-cutter layouts, with one handicapped bathroom and a set of men's and women's bathrooms. The solution of retrofitting existing bathroom layouts to gender-neutral bathrooms is undoubtedly a serious concern because the human population has already been conditioned to male-female gender norms. It can even be a political statement to challenge this spatial rigidity suddenly and immediately. Therefore, while progress takes time, we must be more proactive in our design aspiration, which goes deeper than an all-inclusive entrance hall, a pleasant library space, or a monumental amphitheater. We must recognize the bathroom's gender stratification and recognize its legacy as contested and immensly complex.
With all considered, every time we pass through the "men" or "women" bathroom door, we are entering a realm of pre-conditioned comfort for our gender norms. However, underneath the tiles and ceramic fixtures lies a labyrinthine network of pipes and barriers that drown out our body waste, smell, prejudice, and embarrassment. Gender norms offer comfort for those who fit these boxes, but it is now time to start problematizing our predicament in design and architecture, starting with the bathroom.
The bathroom appears liminal and becomes nothing more than a building requirement. We (designers and students) express a certain numbness/ ignorance to the bathroom, all while using it several times a day. We flush and forget.
Part 4: Conclusion
Within the BK education, it lies in the students to recognize our responsibility as future architects/designers/writers. Will you perpetuate the standard gendered bathroom layouts, or will you experiment with something new? Public bathrooms had been a subject of embarrassment for so long; they were rarely designed as a whole but were thrown together with ill-fitting component parts (a material culture spans from metal to ceramics to aluminum). Toilets are both uncomfortable and difficult to clean. Being clean indicates civilized bodies, so why does the space that receives and disposes of our waste remain absent in the design process?
Kira, Alexander. The Bathroom. New York City, NY: The Viking Press, Inc., 1966, 118-140. Penner, Barbara. “A World of Unmentionable Suffering: Women’s Public Conveniences in Victorian London.” Journal of Design History 14, no. 1 (2001): 35–51.