Lucinda Lambton: Public WCs were once Britain's pride and glory

Unbelievably, the public WC is once again being relished as a work of architectural design rather than a mere convenience
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The Independent Online

The woeful news that up to 40 per cent of public lavatories have been closed by councils during the last decade is being compounded by the financial cuts that are pulling the plugs on many that remain. Lamentable news indeed, when we consider that in the 19th century Britain ruled the sanitary waves, having not only invented the flushing WC but having also produced the world's first public conveniences. Little architectural gems: they still trumpet the triumphs of the taste and technology of their age; of civic pride and of considerable convenience.

There can be few sights that more splendidly state their purpose, than say, the ceramic Corinthian splendours – along with little slate Ionic columns cisterns – of the public Gents under Market Place in Hull of 1906. What too, about the 20, sleekly shining black marbleised urinals of 1890, on the pier at Rothesay Harbour on the island of Bute in Scotland? At the turn of the 20th century, the halcyon heyday of the public lavatory was jubilant as.

Today, attitudes to public convenience are cats cradles of confusion; while many beauties have been, and are still being, destroyed, many have been, and still are being, preserved.

Now for the big bombshell: concurrently with the grim news of closures, comes the glorious news of new openings. Unbelievably, there are local authorities who have commissioned distinguished architects to beautify, rather than brutalise their surroundings with public conveniences. In 2002 New Forest District Council commissioned John Pardey Architects to build ten innovative replacements, one a year for the next ten. Every one of them, so far, lifts the spirits. Today, it can be said that a tour of Hampshire's public lavatories is an exhilarating architectural tour.

Once again the public WC is being seriously considered, indeed relished, as a work of architectural design, rather than a mere convenience. Indeed, as an extra badge of honour for this not-before-time rekindled interest in sanitary design, the Royal Institute of British Architects, to mark 175th anniversary, asked five of Britain's most celebrated architects to design a public convenience.

So the public will not have to be pissing in the street after all.

Lucinda Lambton is a broadcaster, and the author of 'Temples of Convenience & Chambers of Delight'

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