Office bathroom semi-public bathroom

Suggestion for a future unisex office bathroom
Suggestion for a future unisex office bathroom

Stadium/Airport public bathroom

Suggestion for a future large public restroom
Suggestion for a future large public restroom

A better public bathroom

One of the reason this blog has been quiet recently is that I have been busy with too many projects, one of which is just finishing up now. It’s a book about the politics and social life of public bathrooms that I am co-editing with Harvey Molotch and will come out maybe next fall with NYU Press. In the concluding chapter, in a practice uncharacteristic of sociologists, Harvey and I suggest a design solution to a social problem in the form of the schematics you see above.

Here’s the context that you would have gotten had you read the book:

1. There aren’t enough public bathrooms and access to safe, clean places to go often operates to sort out the undesirables and, thus, make them even more undesirable as they are faced with the nowhere-to-go situation.

2. Public bathrooms heighten fears of the Other via their association with waste and dirt (ala Mary Douglas). Electronic fixtures have been installed to alleviate the frisson of coming up against other people’s private moments, past and present (in the stall next to you). But electronic fixtures can be quite frustrating and controlling, especially if you are doing something out of the ordinary like trying to brush your teeth.

3. People who don’t conform to traditional gender norms are not well-served by the bathroom binary. A person got kicked out of a restroom for using the woman’s room when she didn’t appear to be feminine enough. Her attempt to prove that she now identified and had always identified as female was dismissed.

4. The assumption that visiting the restroom is an act undertaken by individuals is faulty. Pairs and groups go, too. People with disabilities might need to take a helper in with them and that helper may very well be of the opposite sex. Parents with young children have all sorts of difficulty. When their kids are babies, where does the stroller go? When they get to be tots, are they going to crawl under the stalls or sit on floors of dubious cleanliness while mom/dad uses the toilet? When they get to be old enough to know the difference between boys and girls but not old enough for mom/dad to feel comfortable letting them use the public restroom alone, what can be done?

5. Architects and regulatory boards often do not have the time or the desire to rethink the design of the bathroom. Offering up a schematic plan is a step towards closing the gap between social science research and the physical world under construction.

Our solution is to make bathrooms unisex. Rather than tuck each individual into a small room completely sealed off from other bathroom users, we maintained the shared space. There’s a lot to learn about navigating taboos in the bathroom, and sorting people into their own private rooms would eliminate those opportunities altogether. On top of the primary concern that sharing the anxious space of the public restroom is a socially productive situation, there’s also the problem that most buildings don’t have enough space for as many private stalls as would be required by law.

We’ve kept urinals because they are so much more environmentally sound than toilets. But they’re tucked away so that men will keep their privacy and women won’t be confronted with the potential site of a penis out of pants.

We’ve turned sinks and toilets into mechanisms operated with foot pedals. Women kick to flush anyways; putting the pedal on the floor makes it a whole lot more accessible and thus, safer.

We’ve suggested that prams and bikes and luggage are part of everyday life and they need a place to be. In the large public restroom, they are parked near an attendant’s area. In the office-scale version, there is a parking nook next to the hand dryers, outside the general circulation route and also outside the typical lines of sight to help prevent theft.

The question

What do you think of our attempt to solve social problems by design? Should we stick to sociology and leave the designing to the architects and planners? Or, is it helpful to see – in plan – how all of the bathroom difficulties from diverse user groups can sit more comfortably together in space?

Are these plans convincing as communication tools? As pieces of graphic design, what else could be done? (color isn’t an option)