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Architecture "behind the need", or a few words about public toilets

24 of March '20

In February, a wooden saloon appeared on one of the undeveloped plots of land in the very center of Lodz. It was a sign of protest by a local businessman (and one-time mayoral candidate!) against the policy of the local authorities, who, according to the provisions of the local zoning plan, did not agree to the erection of a 110-meterhigh skyscraper. "You don't want Dubai - you'll have an outcrop". - the bloodthirsty entrepreneur seemed to say.

A dispute heated up on social media. Supporters of compliance with the provisions of the plan exchanged biting comments with adherents of the "sacred right of property". For me, however, the fame pit erected at Piotrkowska Street was something completely different - an unintentional statement about a shameful problem of public space: the lack of public toilets.

0.00002 of the saloon per resident

In a September 2018 article, a local journalist reported an embarrassing statistic for the city: "in Lodz, a city of 700,000 people, there are only thirteen public toilets!". By comparison, Olsztyn, which has a much smaller population, could boast twenty free toilets. And yet, just ten years ago, city authorities were talking about building public toilets in the downtown area. The Piotrkowska Street Development Strategy 2009-2020 envisaged "undertaking an information campaign (indicating the possibility of using free toilets in premises: bars/restaurants, clubs on Piotrkowska Street), as well as developing a plan and building new public toilets."

As early as 2013, a representative of the Piotrkowska Service Team and the Greater Metropolitan Zone, explained why no (sic!) new public toilet was built on the city's most important street. To this day, the situation has not significantly improved. The Lodz Tourist Organization's website lists fourteen public toilets along Piotrkowska alone. The problem is that they are all located in... eating establishments. Anyone who has ever had to use a toilet belonging to a club or restaurant without being a customer knows how uncomfortable this situation is. Fortunately, ŁOT points to another solution! "Public toilets are located at the airport and train stations. Public free toilets are also available in shopping centers." No information is available about municipal toilets.

toilet (in)accessible

Not surprisingly, the city's web portal for tourists does not indicate public toilets. A dozen facilities are scattered throughout the city. Only a few of them meet modern standards. Many could at most be an attraction for lovers of thrills and time travel. Near one of Lodz's marketplaces there is a city shack whose very form is reminiscent of a bygone era. Discreetly hidden underground, the toilet is accessed by two independent entrances ("gentlemen to the left, ladies to the right") preceded by steep stairs (there is no elevator). The elderly, disabled and those with limited mobility do not have the slightest chance to get inside.

Toaleta publiczna
Zielonym Rynku w Łodzi

A public toilet at the Green Square in Lodz - a relic of a bygone era.

photo: Błażej Ciarkowski

Automatic toilets could be a solution to the problems. They could, because the number of unattended cubicles is far from sufficient. The most common solution is still the popular "toi toi", whose manufacturer has unquestionably earned the name "Slawoj-Składkowskiof the Third Republic". The plastic, prefabricated booths in vivid colors have become part of the Polish landscape, so much so that when a simple self-service toilet with facades finished in granite and aluminum was built in Lodz's Ks. J. Poniatowski Park, it was hailed as "exclusive."

z nielicznych automatycznych toalet w Łodzi.

One of the few automatic toilets in Lodz.
Granite and aluminum have so captivated the local press that it has been described as "exclusive."

Photo: Błażej Ciarkowski

new form for a known function

Admittedly, when physiology comes to the fore, the aesthetics of architectural solutions recede into the background, but it is worth considering what contemporary public toilets look like (or could look like).

French sanisette are simple, automatic sanitary cabins with distinctive rounded forms. Because of their repetition and consequent use in different locations, they have neutral forms. They are closer to elements of urban infrastructure with a strictly technical purpose than to traditional architecture. In Poland, Warsaw, among others, has decided on similar solutions. Near the upper pavilion of the Warszawa Powiśle station stood a gray block, neutral in expression.

An interesting case of individual designs for public toilets are the concepts awarded in the cyclical KOŁO Competition. During the subsequent editions, the designers faced locations with more or less clearly defined specifics - from the vicinity of Mickiewicz's Waterfalls in the Tatra Mountains, through Warsaw's beach on the Vistula River, to the Mogilskie Roundabout in Cracow. It is worth emphasizing the contextual nature of the awarded projects and their architectural quality, but above all it is important to note the practical effects of the competition.

Projekt toalety
w Parku Zachodnim we Wrocławiu.

The design of a restroom in Park Zachodni in Wroclaw. The winning project in the 2015 KOŁO Competition,
submitted for implementation as part of the participatory budget, authors: Aleksandra Zalewska, Anna Siwiec, Joanna Maria Ejzler.

Illustration courtesy of Geberit

Through the efforts of the organizers, four toilets have been completed so far: two in Warsaw and one each in Kazimierz Dolny and Krakow. Three more are under construction in Katowice, Plock and Wroclaw. One can only wonder why Łódź, which was the subject of a competition in 2011, has not benefited from its results....

(WC) duck or decorated kennel?

The public toilet in Kazimierz is an intimate pavilion referring to the archetypal form of a country cottage, and at the level of detail - to the wooden rails of the surrounding fences. On the other hand, located near the National Stadium, Warsaw's post-competition realization grew to the size of a small complex consisting of dining establishments and viewing terraces, which is fully compatible with the concept of revitalizing the right bank of the Vistula River.

Pawilony na prawym
brzegu Wisły w Warszawie.

Pavilions on the right bank of the Vistula River in Warsaw, by the authors of the project: Katarzyna Szpicmacher, Maja Matuszewska, Aleksandra Krzywanska.

Photo: Błażej Ciarkowski

The striking concepts, however, provoke questions about the potential excess of form over the trivial content. Does a public restroom have to be an "architectural gem"? Or is it enough that its neutral form is unobtrusive? Finally - should the main function of the sanitary facility be clear at first glance? An extreme example seems to be the architectural joke indulged in in Ghent. The design museum there has added a pavilion housing sanitary facilities. The designers created a "duck building" (in keeping with Robert Venturi's concept distinguishing "duck" and "decorated kennels" buildings), whose form is not so much a result of its function as it is about it. The toilet is shaped like... a giant roll of toilet paper.

Toaleta przy muzeum
dizajnu w Gandawie.

An architectural joke - the toilet at the Ghent Design Museum.

Photo: Blazej Ciarkowski

In this case we are dealing with two different, yet complementary issues. Priority should be given to the accessibility of public sanitary facilities and simplicity of solutions. Sophisticated form may (but need not) come later.

The insufficient number of toilets in Polish cities is one of the side effects of the transformation. Opinion polls clearly indicate that as a society we perceive public toilets as "stinky places." Włodzimierz Pessel cites appeals from Warsaw residents who expect "universal access to a clean toilet." The progressive aestheticization and revitalization of public spaces is not always the solution to these all-important everyday problems. Often forgotten is, as Pessel put it, "legalizing the physiological needs of passersby." Meanwhile, this wrongly considered shameful, overlooked part of infrastructure can be an interesting element of urban space.


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