Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Socialist Lavatory League Communique #7

The attention of the SLL has been drawn to the following proposals for Tomorrow's Public Toilet, organised by that monarchist claque, the RIBA. The League applauds the rare attention to Public Convenience, something which has been all-but obliterated in the neoliberal city, with the privatised, revanchist exceptions of those automated pods where 20p ushers you into a machine around as trustworthy as the hospital bed in Roujin-Z. Worse still are those pissoirs where those - like the League's General Secretary - who have major problems with the plumbing, are left wholly dispossessed. At the very least, these proposals appear to have full facilities and an attention to aesthetics which is welcome - we cannot live by receptacles alone. For this at least, these architects must be applauded.

However, all of the contributors here - most of whom seem to accept the preposterous notion of paying to use public facilities for relief - make a common mistake. They all seem to think, in a giggly English fashion (and Eva Jiricna doesn't even have that excuse) that bodily functions are funny, and that this hilarity must be communicated by the form. Now, as many members of the SLL find that their dignity is put at risk for health and other reasons, the ideal of the public convenience will always be one of clean living in difficult circumstances. There's no reason why a loo should resemble an early 70s Terry Gilliam animation or one of the adverts from Bert Fegg's Nasty Book for Boys and Girls. Regardless, the proposals, one by one: Jiricna is already partly responsible for one public loo in London, at her Canada Water bus station. Being part of the freakish, anomalous brilliance of the Jubilee Line extension, the station itself is a marvellous Constructivist pavilion, but the toilets actually go too far in the other direction. No offensive jollity, but instead a Bottom Inspectors hell of cold metallic cisterns. Notably, none of the Jubilee Stations' toilets have seats, presumably because TFL can't be bothered to replace them after they get vandalised. That this great public project eventually results in sitting on cold metal in a London winter is an example of the limits of reformism.

So Jiricna's contribution here is brightly coloured, which immediately makes it unlike her earlier work. There is a big cartoon flower in the middle, a touch of fashionable eco-whimsy which is replicated in the programme: There is also the option of pods that provide undercover seating, advertisements, video projection and vending machines, not to mention solar batteries, wind turbines or light sculptures. Public art in public conveniences. We can pass over Robert Adam's neoclassical proposal, not only because lamentably reactionary but also because it is nothing new - similar royalist pissing pods are sprinkled around Westminster, and all of them adhere to the automated pod design which is the enemy of true Public Convenience. Will Alsop's proposal is somewhat baffling - is he suggesting, in Swiftian fashion, that the smell of our waste should be left to linger on the concrete streets? Are we lifted into the toilet's pod or is the toilet hoisted onto us? So his attention to ventilation is most welcome, removing the smell of either disinfectant or piss that is usually attendant, his technological formalism (not to mention the whimsical Zebra stripes) is, while intriguing, something likely to result, after the usual minimal attention to maintenance, in the toilet pod crashing somewhere that it shouldn't.

The other two, and superficially similar proposals, by DSDHA and FAT, don't seem that interested in the immanent qualities of the public toilet, but are more about particular urban interventions using the loo as a pretext. DSDHA go for a Cesare Borgia fountain, all Gods, Goddesses and 'greywater' turned into a pretext for water features. This, at least, is staffed, although the 'warden' appears a rather Bottom Inspectors choice - a mere attendant is obviously not sufficiently security conscious. The 'elevation' promised is deeply ideological - the elevation of the act of expulsion to the level of myth is the mere correspondent of its denigration. It need not be either, just something that has to be done, cleanly and comfortably. A similarly grandiose design by FAT, featuring a gigantic head of Hercules and/or Athena (the proposal that Aphrodite could replace the latter is at least intriguing) recognises that our 'miserly public toilet provision' must be fought, but also seems to go too far in the other direction, proposing instead an intimidating grandiosity, though it's a more interesting urban object than any of the other proposals, with the possible exception of Alsop's. It shares with all of them the recourse to the gag. If there is any form of public architecture where a certain amount of rectitude and lack of fuss would be necessary it is this, yet all of these architects are more inclined to chuckle schoolboyishly. Another effort, architects, if you want support from the SLL.

(in the course of researching this I was forwarded the following link, which includes a rather funereal loo by Adolf Loos - a man who knew that plumbing is a very serious thing)


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