The architecture of public toilets, from antiquity to present-day projects

Often mistreated for their prosaic nature, public restrooms represent civic sense and urban culture, and provide a point of connection between man and architecture in the city.

If, according to Rem Koolhaas since the 2014 Venice Biennale, the bathroom is ”the fundamental zone of interaction – at the most intimate level – between man and architecture”, it is not surprising that the design theme of the public restrooms, exporting such intimate interaction to the streets and squares of a city, is particularly challenging.

That of the public toilet is an ancient history that goes from the time of Vespasian – when public urinals were used to collect the ammonia from urine used in textile manufacturing, to tax it – to when, from the 19th century onwards, restrooms became an expression of urban decorum (furnishings in the time of Haussmann and sanisettes in Paris, public baths at the Graben in Vienna and the Albergo Venezia in Milan).

The ways in which the subject of public baths is approached vary according to latitudes: among the most virtuous in terms of respect for the individual and for public affairs are the Scandinavian countries and especially Japan, where the sentō (the typical public bath with water pools) has for centuries offered opportunities for socialising and cathartic experiences of relaxation.

In general, beyond the mere function of regulating physiological needs in the street, the public bath is an element that transcends urban furniture to become an expression of culture and human dignity. This is demonstrated by a number of contemporary works around the world: from those rooted in an established tradition (The Tokyo Toilet project, transposed to the Triennale) to impromptu ones (Aandeboom); from those integrated into the historical or landscape context (Miró Rivera Architects, Diego Jobell, Snøhetta, Schleifer & Milczanowski Architekci, Manthey Kula Architects) to those openly exhibited (Gramazio & Kohler, Chris Briffa); from dreamlike ones (Hundertwasser) to those with political (Cassani, Galán, Munuera and Sanders) and social (RC architects) significance.

In any case, net of “structural” idiosyncrasies (due to neglect and decay known in our country) and psychological idiosyncrasies (related to germaphobia, claustrophobia and pathologies of various kinds), there remains the common denominator of the bathroom as a space for the care and government of our bodies, which, whether in the home or in a square, is perhaps the only real ”throne room” we have.

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