A research station by:
Matilde Cassani, Ignacio G. Galán,
Iván L. Munuera, Joel Sanders
Restrooms are often described as neutral facilities or mere utilitarian infrastructures catering to the universal needs of individuals. But they are contested spaces that are shaped by and in turn shape the ways bodies and communities come together. Restrooms are architectures where gender, religion, race, ability, hygiene, health, environmental concerns, and the economy are defined culturally and articulated materially. In the last years, the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and growing tensions derived from population displacements have made these entanglements more evident. Restrooms are not an isolated design problem but rather symptoms of larger disputes that can be mediated through architectural tools. Restrooms are political architectures, they are battlegrounds.
Imagen Subliminal (Miguel de Guzman + Rocio Romero) / Natalia Guardia
Pablo, a young disabled man, and Jaqueline, his mother and attendant, have been fighting for the last thirty years to have their needs accommodated in restrooms around Colombia. Their struggle is part of a collective battle that the disability community has waged both through activism and their lived experience—bringing this struggle into the home.
Over the past several decades, Colombia has grappled with the challenge of accommodating the needs of a significant number of people with disabilities due to a prolonged and violent armed conflict. Although Colombia enacted a National Law on Disability in 1997 and advanced towards the solution of the armed conflict in 2016, challenges continue to be present for many disabled individuals in the country. The built environment—including bathrooms—is still a battleground not only for the injured, but also for disabled individuals from multiple generations, in their struggles to navigate space. The relationship between body and space that restrooms normalize has the effect of segregating people with disabilities, who are forced to persevere in a built environment that materializes current ableist imaginaries.
While public restrooms are a common site where these struggles have been socialized, private bathrooms are a place in which many everyday battles are also waged. In fact, the pursuit of affordable housing is often achieved at the expense of inclusion, since few disabled individuals can afford apartments with accessible restrooms.
Pablo and Jaqueline have negotiated these limitations with ad-hoc solutions: “In the family home, one needs to make spatial adaptations.” In their case, these adaptations have included replacing the door of the restroom with a curtain in order to facilitate entering and exiting with a wheelchair. The conventional association between the restroom and privacy has been challenged. This condition is not a problem for their family of three, but as Jaqueline argues, “It sometimes creates uncomfortable situations for guests when they come to visit.”
Jaqueline’s role as an attendant to her adult son in the restroom transforms it from a place of privacy into a locus of care—a site where diverse modes of inter-dependence are manifested.
Among other techno-spatial inventions, a hose has been added to help Jacqueline shower her son. Domestic restrooms are, in fact, a rich platform for the development of self-made experimental technologies that the scholar Aimi Hamraie has called “crip technosience.” Aimi explains: “[Crip-technoscience] challenge[s] hierarchies and power relations . . . by shifting expertise to those with lived experiences of disability and away from outside experts.”
Pablo and Jaqueline are bearers of that expertise. But Jaqueline is also a disability justice activist and has worked with the Housing Department Corporation in Colombia to bring the knowledge generated through everyday experiences to the attention of architecture professionals in order to change the regulations framing the construction of private apartments.
The struggle continues outside the house: With her son requiring continual care, Pablo and Jaqueline oftentimes travel together, frequently to attend meetings related to her activist work. During these trips, the normalization of everyday life that hotels impose becomes a barrier to Pablo and Jacqueline’s performances of care. As a result, Jaqueline often needs to confront hotel administrators to ask them to accommodate her family’s needs. Her challenge to technical expertise, authority, and normalization is clearly encapsulated in her recurrent request: “You need to let yourselves be educated about what others need!”
Disabled individuals and their attendants, like Pablo and Jaqueline, are not the object of needs, but subjects with their own expertise over space, which is manifested in the transformation of the regulated spaces that bathrooms build.
CANTERBURY PRISON, UNITED KINGDOM
In 2009, a controversy was sparked when the news became public that the Canterbury Prison in Kent, UK, had installed footbaths and squat latrines for its approximately one hundred Muslim incarcerated people.
With increased migration to Western countries, differences between diverse cultural and religious practices result in divergent norms of hygiene, and conflicting practices in the restroom. These differences have triggered growing clashes that make visible the ways that intolerance and racism are manifested in a space often considered as neutral. Members of the Muslim community have often been the target of these manifestations of intolerance. They face opposition to the introduction of squat latrines, which are prevalent in many Muslim countries, and confront Western standards in their need to wash their feet as part of their ablutions. The latter regimen has been particularly controversial for its links with religious practices. As Shahed Saleem explains in The British Mosque: “Before the prayer, Muslims are required to wash, in clean running water, their hands, mouth, nose, face, forearms, and feet, and to wipe their hair, ears, and the back of their neck. The place for ablution was traditionally provided for in various ways, perhaps more characteristically with fountains in entrance courtyards [to mosques].”
However, Muslim individuals have faced opposition when introducing these practices in restrooms lacking adequate fixtures. And while this resistance is a particular representation of anti-Muslim bias, it is also a manifestation of the ways in which restrooms broadly regulate how we use our body, in what postures, and to what ends. These regulations are even more evident within carceral architectures, which are characterized by diverse forms of bodily control.
Mirroring the rich diversity of the UK, Canterbury Prison holds incarcerated people from sixty-six different nationalities, and they regularly practice seventeen distinct religions. Each of these religions has its independent spatial and technical needs which the prison accommodates in different ways.
For Muslims, prayer timetables are provided, and an imam regularly visits worshippers. The chair of the Prison Monitoring Board celebrates these additions, which she considers unproblematic.
And yet, when these practices were manifested in the architecture of restrooms, they led to a major controversy. The introduction of new fixtures was condemned by organizations as diverse as the Tax Payers' Alliance and radical Christian groups. The former denounced an investment that it considered unnecessary, the latter deemed the changes offensive. Genevieve, whose blog denounces what she calls “the death of the West,” lamented that, while these fixtures will become a permanent element in the architecture of the prison, the Christian altar was a portable element and no cross was in sight: “No doubt this ‘facility’ that excludes the cross of Christ will become a breeding ground for future jihadists.”
Even the Archbishop of Canterbury has addressed the addition of these fixtures, something that has been broadly described as threatening the social fabric of the West.
Both in the UK and in other Western countries, including the US, the alt-right media has based the rejection of these fixtures on the broader logics of assimilation, asking the members of the Muslim community to adapt to the country in which they live.
The restroom has thus become the site where the logics of cultural assimilation are being debated, negotiated, and materially enacted—all in a seemingly quite ordinary space. A young man affected by these polemics has explained them in a very straightforward manner: “Having these fixtures is just more convenient. It’s uncomfortable to perform ablution in a non dedicated space especially when other people enter the restroom.”
There is a lack of public restroom facilities in Haiti. And, after the earthquake of 2010 that destroyed much of Port-au-Prince’s infrastructure, private restrooms also face an uncertain existence. The management of wastewater has grown into an environmental problem and helped to foster a disastrous epidemic.
The earthquake took place during the afternoon of January 12, 2010, killing over 200,000 people and displacing over 1,000,000. Ten months later, on October 20th, an outbreak of cholera was confirmed in Haiti for the first time in more than a century, with over 665,000 cases and more than 8,000 deaths spreading the contagion through rivers, as well as tributary streams. The usage of these rivers as sources of drinking water turned the situation into a catastrophe. Rains and flooding worsened the situation. Although the spread of the cholera epidemic was related to Haiti’s sanitation system, the responsibility for the outbreak and its management was not.
Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary general, recognized its institutional responsibility in December 2016 by saying: “We simply did not do enough with regard to the cholera outbreak and spread in Haiti.” But he refused to accept any legal accountability.
Cholera was introduced by peacekeepers in 2010 after troops were redeployed from Nepal—where an outbreak of cholera had taken place—to help in emergency work following the devastating earthquake. Basic health measures that could have been taken to prevent the transfer of the disease were not employed; instead, raw sewage from the peacekeeper camps was dumped directly into rivers from which thousands of Haitians routinely drew water for cooking, cleaning, and drinking. As a neighbor from the Bocozel quarter declared: “People were just dropping. Here in the fifth section . . . , it was as if the bastion of the disease itself was located here.”
A leaked report, drafted by the UN itself after the initial outbreak, found serious sanitation flaws in the Haitian peacekeeping mission. Yet for six years the world body continued to deny it had anything to do with the health catastrophe, blaming the disaster instead on Haiti’s facilities and authorities. Crucially, the UN continues to reject any requests for compensation from the thousands of Haitian victims. The organization insists that it has total immunity from such claims relating to the harmful impact caused by its staff carrying out routine business.
A male community leader in Port-au-Prince points out: “When the cholera disease was causing ‘ravaj’ [ravage], no one knew what it was. We all heard about people dying. . . . But we didn’t know the disease’s name.”
The majority of the 3,000,000 people living in the metropolitan area use outhouses, and much of that waste ends up in canals, ditches, and other unsanitary dumping grounds, where it can contaminate drinking water and spread disease, especially cholera. The bacterium Vibrio cholerae spreads mostly via unsafe water that has been contaminated with human feces. Most of the wastewater and runoff in Port-au-Prince, especially after rainstorms, follows the system of concrete canals that cut through the city and down to the sea, affecting the sea environment and the city in return.
The proximity of Haiti to other nation-states like the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Cuba makes the spread of epidemics a transnational reality. The management of sewage systems and the use of restrooms unfolds the neocolonial realities and the uneven balance of powers on a global stage.
STARBUCKS, PHILADELPHIA, UNITED STATES
Public restrooms provide safe spaces for a number of uses and users: from urinating and defecating, to applying make-up, to changing diapers and sanitary pads, as well as many other private activities. But public restrooms have also become a notorious site of discrimination. In the United States, a number of private companies—like Starbucks—have redefined the concept of public space through their facilities, which are open, supposedly, to “all publics.” However, these companies maintain their own policies, and therefore their own definitions of citizenship and the right to space. For example, Starbucks markets its outlets as public spaces, ones where people can meet, relax, and work, something in between a domestic environment and a public park. In a Starbucks commercial of 2020, the company made the following statement: “We have the unique charge to be a part of our local community.”
But the company’s recent history has shown that its spaces are, actually, more problematic and less inclusive. On April 12, 2018, a White employee at a Starbucks in Center City Philadelphia called the police on two young Black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, because they asked to use the restroom before ordering anything. When the police arrived, the two men were arrested on suspicion of trespassing. It turned out they had been waiting for a business meeting. During their detention, other users recorded what was happening using their cellphones, and started screaming: “What did they do? What did they do?”
The public outcry about this event was spurred by posts on social media with hashtags like #BoycottStarbucks, #StarbucksWhileBlack, and #WhiteSpace. This situation forced the company to temporarily close eight thousand shops across the country in order to conduct “racial-bias training” for its employees. During the protests outside the Philadelphia location, a group of people chanted: “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”
After the Philadelphia outlet reopened, the company stated that from that moment on, any person entering any of its premises should be considered a customer “regardless of whether they make a purchase.” Consequently, its restrooms became effectively public, expanding the availability of sanitary facilities in the areas where they are located.
And yet, at the beginning of 2019, a series of local Starbucks, including the one in Center City Philadelphia, changed the lightbulbs in their restrooms to blue lights as a result of the opioid epidemic, seeking to make the environment of the bathroom a hostile space for intravenous drug users. The glow supposedly masks the blue-tinted lines of veins beneath the skin, making it harder to find one and inject. But the effectiveness of this strategy is questionable. Research shows that the bulbs are unlikely to prevent drug use, but they increase the risk of vein damage and infections. Blue lights are a visible warning with a clear message: intravenous drug users are not welcome. Meanwhile, other solutions that cater to the intravenous drug users build restrooms as a safe space: biohazard boxes prevent employees from having to pick up used needles; and sanitary wipes and paper towels are used for cleaning up blood splatter. If public space is a place open and accessible to all people, the exclusion of certain people, through blue lights or racial bias, shows how the term “public” is being redefined by global corporations. Material elements contain politics, and also the possibility of redefining citizenship.
GLOUCESTER HIGH SCHOOL, VIRGINIA, UNITED STATES
Photographs: Imagen Subliminal (Miguel de Guzman + Rocio Romero) / Natalia Guardia
In 2015, Gavin Grimm, a sixteen-year-old transgender boy from Virginia, was thrust into a legal battle with the Gloucester County School Board. As a student at Gloucester High School, Gavin was forbidden to use the male restrooms on account of his trans identity. In response, for the past six years, Gavin (now 21 years old), his legal team, and a legion of supporters have argued that this act of gender-based discrimination violated Gavin’s civil rights.
In 2016, Gavin’s case reached the United States Supreme Court, becoming a watershed in the battle for transgender equality. Had the Supreme Court ruled in Gavin’s favor, the decision would have set an important precedent to protect trans students nationwide. However, the case was sent back to the lower courts when the Trump administration reversed Title IX protections for trans students issued under the Obama administration.
Gavin’s case has become one of the best-known examples of the “transgender toilet wars” that were making news headlines at the time. Multiple states worked to implement so-called “bathroom bills,” which restrict trans people from using the restroom aligned with their gender identity, instead determining restroom access based on the sex designated on one’s birth certificate.
In compensation for prohibiting Gavin from using the communal male restrooms frequented by his friends and classmates, the School Board converted two janitor’s storage closets into two unisex restrooms created specifically for Gavin’s use. These were located far from his classes, resulting in undue hardship. In Gavin’s own words: “Most of my classes were . . . on the other side of the school from these bathrooms. Even at the closest hall . . . , it was still a longer walk, and you would pass by several perfectly-functional, perfectly-usable gender-segregated restrooms. . . . It could be a whole thirty-minute affair if you just went as fast as you could.”
These former janitor’s closets were aesthetically uninviting, socially stigmatizing, and created without consulting Gavin. Notably, Gavin never even used these restrooms, opting instead for the single-user, male restroom located in the nurse’s office. Though this option aligned with Gavin’s gender identity, this restroom was also far from his classes, and stigmatizing to use.
According to Joshua Block, Gavin’s lead legal counsel from the ACLU: “The process of having to walk to this separate area, marks you out as being different, and marks you out as being sort of not fit to be in the same facilities as other people. So that sort of humiliation and shame and stigma I think are, you know, some of the greatest consequences.”
In Gavin’s own words, the sum impact of the discrimination he faced was the following:
“I didn't get to be a kid. I didn't get to be a teenager looking forward to graduation. I got trauma and pain and failure that was not looked upon with kindness. I lost everything.”
Gavin’s case demonstrates how gender-based discrimination is determined not only by public policy, but by building codes which require that bathrooms be configured to segregate people on the basis of sex. These codes reinforce a traditional male/female gender binary that ignores the multiplicity of gender identities and expressions. In 2019, architects and lawyers joined forces to successfully amend the International Plumbing Code, the model code adopted by state, federal, and local jurisdictions across the United States. The new provision no longer mandates sex-segregated restrooms and will allow for the design and implementation of multi-user restrooms that serve everyone, regardless of gender identity. Efforts like these demonstrate how designers can collaborate across disciplines and work in solidarity with marginalized communities in order to make more equitable futures possible.
KHAYELITSHA , SOUTH AFRICA
For the past decade, protestors in South Africa have burned tires in the streets and flung human waste onto the convoys of politicians, in the fight for sanitation systems that safely dispose of human waste. Residents of Khayelitsha, a township of Cape Town, have been particularly embroiled in these so-called “toilet wars.”
Their demand? Safe, functional, and sanitary flush toilets—an amenity currently denied to the residents of Khayelitsha’s informal settlements, which make up roughly half of the township and house an impoverished, 99%-Black-African population.
The grim disparity faced by these residents is symptomatic of the legacy of apartheid, the system used in South Africa to engineer a racially-divided society. Under apartheid, waterborne sanitation systems were connected to wealthy White districts, leaving poor Black districts with the so-called “bucket system” where residents were forced to relieve themselves in dry plastic buckets that they were also responsible for emptying.
While the “bucket system” remains a reality for many South Africans, residents in Khayelitsha’s informal settlements largely use “pota potas.” These portable toilets feature odor-eliminating chemicals and are collected for weekly cleaning. However, like the “bucket system,” “pota potas” are not connected to a sanitation system and force families to relieve themselves inside their iron-shack homes with no privacy.
We spoke to Masixole Feni, a nearby resident and award-winning photographer of Khayelitsha’s sanitation system, about these portable toilets. “They have to use it in the house. And most of the time next to kids . . . , next to where there’s kids. So, for example, if you wake up at night and you need to relieve yourself, you can't go out in a private restroom, you just do it like right next to everyone in the family who is maybe sleeping there in this one room or space. . . .”
An alternative but less convenient option does exist. “Communal toilets” are located outdoors, up to a ten-minute walk from one’s home. “Communal toilets” come in two types: rows of concrete stalls containing flush toilets, and rows of freestanding plastic toilet stalls, like the ones used at construction sites.
Poorly maintained, both types are often unsanitary and non-functional, with a single toilet shared by between five and twenty households. These toilets are inaccessible to wheelchair users, and threaten the health of the women who clean the toilets to compensate for municipal negligence. They make children vulnerable to the risk of abduction and murder, and studies also show an average of 635 sexual assaults against women traveling to use these toilets each year, compounding the dangers already faced by these vulnerable groups.
We spoke to Thamara Hela, a leader of South Africa’s Informal Settlements Network and Khayelitsha resident. "In Cape Town we have two cities: we have the city of White people and the city of the Black people. . . . In White areas, you can’t even get the chemical toilets. You always go to flush toilets."
And while protestors demand that flush toilets should be made available to all, events like the 2017 Cape Town Water Crisis demonstrate that a city facing severe droughts and water shortages exacerbated by climate change may have to consider alternatives to waterborne sanitation systems.
According to architectural scholar Barbara Penner, who has researched this topic broadly : “We must critique Western standards of consumption and commit to a user-centered participatory design paradigm that considers more environmentally-friendly solutions for all users.”
With the participation of people like those from Khayelitsha’s informal settlements in the decision-making process, the pressures posed by droughts offer an opportunity for South Africa’s government to address the legacy of apartheid by reimagining the country’s infrastructures in a way that benefits all its citizens.
How do we define parity in relationship to public toilet facilities? In gender-segregated contexts, where restrooms of equal floor area are provided for males and females, the men’s rooms can include urinals, resulting in more fixtures for males. Studies, including the work of T.L. Banks, have demonstrated that women actually need more time at the toilet. In addition, the majority of children are brought to public toilets by women, further increasing usage.
The long-fought quest for potty parity, or the equitable provision of public toilet facilities was recently raised by activist Li Tingting in 2012 in Guangzhou. She occupied the men’s toilets in a busy public restroom, and invited women to use both women’s and men’s stalls in order to shorten the women’s queue.
Wang Jianyi, another woman, experienced this inequity in potty parity during an hours-long bus ride. Long lines awaited her at each rest stop while her male co-riders had much less waiting time. Upon arrival at the bus terminal in Beijing, yet another line awaited her. “I have been holding my pee for an hour. I think there should definitely be more stalls for women, because women take longer.”
The disparity between the lengths of queues for access to men’s and women’s toilets also highlights a wider problem: the architectural segregation between male and female. This segregation fails to recognize a diversity of gender identities beyond this binary. Furthermore, toilets have not always been divided by gender.
This divide is often justified by appealing to privacy concerns. This claim can be traced back to the economic prosperity and technological transformations brought about by the Industrial Revolution. The cultural quest for privacy has been manifested, since then, in the design of restrooms that divided users on the basis of sex. Increasingly, differences in the perception of safety and cleanliness arose between male and female bathrooms, reaffirming binary constructions of gender that those very bathrooms had shaped in the first place. This concern was addressed in a study done by the sociologists Sarah Moore and Simon Breeze, in which they analyzed twenty public toilets and interviewed the men and women who used the facilities. The study showed that some of the fears were shared by both groups, and were sometimes even more pronounced in men: “The women we interviewed . . . spoke at length about poor hygiene, their concern about the spaces being used by other, less conscientious people, their fears . . . about unlockable or gap-ridden cubicle doors and their worries about being overheard using the toilet. The male interviewees, too, expressed concerns with privacy and pollution. For both sexes, the blurred line between public and private space was a source of great discomfort and, in some cases, shame.”
However, as similar as some of these feelings may be, the uneasiness and discomfort within the public toilet is usually amplified by the lack of a sufficient number of stalls—a case that particularly affects women.
Back in China, Li Tingting’s demands continued to unfold in 2013 during World Toilet Day, when petitioners demanded more women’s fixtures and a revision of the Standard for City Public Toilet Design. Li Tingting was detained due to her activism concerning related gender struggles.
Access to toilets is a basic human right. Equitable toilet access for all gender identities remains an open battle.
Your Restroom Is A Battleground builds upon the collective experience of the four participating teams. Matilde Cassani (www.matildecassani.com) addresses toilets in the framework of her interest in the spatial implications of everyday multiculturalism in the contemporary Western city. Ignacio G. Galán (wwww.ignaciogalan.com) considers the relationship of architecture and politics and frames the study of restrooms in response to assimilationist and technocratic ideologies —following his work on nationalism and migration and his interest in critical access and anti-ableism. Ivan L. Munuera (https://soa.princeton.edu/content/ivan-lopez-munuera) explores the intersection between culture, technology, politics, and bodily practices, understanding restrooms as collective embodiments, challenging their materiality to understand them as both infiltrating and being infiltrated by technologies, beings, regulations, and policies. The contribution of Joel Sanders, principal of JSA/MIXdesign (www.mixdesign.online) is informed by Stalled!, a cross-disciplinary design/research project consisting of toolkits and prototypes for safe, accessible public restrooms that meet the needs of differently embodied and identified people regardless of age, gender, race, faith or disability.
Research and Design:
Matilde Cassani; Ignacio G. Galán; Iván L. Munuera; Joel Sanders
Model Design and Production:
Pablo Saiz del Rio
Graphic and Web Design:
Paula Vilaplana de Miguel
Paula Vilaplana de Miguel and Jorge Lopez Conde
Research and Design Collaboration:
Seb Choe; Leonardo Gatti; Vanessa Gonzalez ; Marco Li; and Maria Chiara Pastore.
Maxime Diamond, Paola Pardo Castillo, Jean Im, Matty Cheesbrough, Stuart Sagar, Aimie Hamraie, Gavin Grimm, Jean Evens, Pierre Stanley, Thamara Hela, Barbara Penner, Joshua Block, Masixole Feni, Wang Xiu Ying, Antoine Comets, Malivai Luce
Elise Jaffe+Jeffrey Brown, Barnard College (Columbia University), Princeton University School of Architecture, Yale University School of Architecture