Going in style

The Victorians liked them grand, but modern buildings are often let down by cheap lavatories. At the new Tate at the Bankside, however, they think it's worth spending a penny or two, says Jonathan Glancey

Jonathan Glancey
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:39

This week I went to see Jacques Herzog, the Swiss architect whose practice Herzog de Meuron won the competition to convert Bankside power station into the new Tate. Herzog flies to London once or twice a week to work with the 14 architects (seven from Switzerland, seven from the British firm Shepherd Robson) racing against time to complete the commission by May 1999. The aim is to give the Tate a year to move in and arrange the Pollocks, Rothkos and Hirsts. Herzog, a passionate man who gives the lie to the cliched image of the super-cool, Calvinist Swiss, was embroiled in a discussion about the lavatories.

The British view is that lavatories in public buildings are necessary, but either too embarrassing to discuss or too trivial to merit attention. Buy in some wafer-thin partitions, the cheapest urinals and wash-basins available, door-catches guaranteed to stick, bend or fall off within a matter of weeks, DIY floor tiles, and lighting designed to give the healthiest person the Francis Bacon or Edvard Munch beauty treatment. Clean these sporadically. Assume the public will expect no better.

The Swiss view is that public lavatories should be designed to match the ambition of the building they flush in and should, of course, be immaculate. For the Tate, Herzog dreams of slate floors, with white marble insets in individual cubicles and one-piece slate wash-basins running the length of the walls, like the stone lavatoria of medieval monastic cloisters or the wash-bashins built into the walls of mountain refuges for the Swiss military. His urinals would be a slate wall flowing with water. Partitions would be solid and the doors would reach as far as possible to the floor rather than cut off to reveal those absurd vignettes of shoes and trousers rolled to the ankles.

I am not sure why the British are so odd about public lavatories. From childhood on, we were taught to fear them because they were dark, dirty and crawling with incomprehensible diseases, and because strange men lurked in their stinking cubicles. When British Rail opened its "Superloos" at the new Euston station in the mid-Sixties, passengers were outraged at the thought of spending more than a penny to use them. In fact, Euston's "Superloos" were the smartest part of this banal and unfriendly airport- style building. At least travellers could use a clean lavatory, wash properly afterwards, take showers (a frightfully un-British thing to do), shave or else re-arrange their faces after the hike down from Scotland, North Wales or the Lakes. Thirty years ago, these "Superloos" were like something from another planet (or Switzerland).

I have a theory, but not a very convincing one, that for most architects, lavatories are a nuisance. Did the Greeks have to think of where to place urinals when they built the Parthenon? Did the architect-masons of Durham or Chartres concern themselves with problems of ullage and micturition? Lavatories take the art from architecture.

Late Victorians prove that the theory is not altogether water-tight. In a flush of enthusiasm, Victorian architects created some of the finest lavatories yet. In the basement of gentlemen's clubs and off the lobbies of grand hotels, they shaped opulent lavatories making prodigious use of marble, brass, mosaic and glass. Here were rooms that would grace an imperial Roman basilica or serve a Turkish harem.

Standards fell again with the rise of Modern architecture, when lavatories became mere machines for urinating in and fixtures and fittings were all too often bog-standard. Some years ago, I went on a tour with Colin St John Wilson, architect of the new British Library, through the extension he had designed to the British Museum. The new building was discreet yet handsomely made, its walls of stone, its stairs wide and shallow, its circulation spaces generous. Yet, when I went to the lavatory, I was disappointed to find low ceilings, thin partitions and cheap fixtures incompatible with the multi-million pound building they served.

It is a lesson some architects, and their clients, have learned since. Sir Norman Foster is good at lavatories. Those at the Royal Academy of Arts and Stansted Airport are a cut above the norm for public buildings. The much celebrated public lavatories Piers Gough designed in London's Westbourne Grove are a delight to look at from the outside, but penny- plain inside, which is a pity, although anything else would have been beyond the architects' budget.

Another theory, suggested to me by an architect who designs excellent lavatories, but wishes to remain nameless, is that many British architects find it difficult to design decent public lavatories because so many of them are ex-public schoolboys, condemned for years to conspire and smoke in some of the foulest lavatories known to man. In later life they assume that no one deserves better. Maybe.

Perhaps the problem is one of straightforward denial. We go to conference centres to hear learned speeches, to concert halls to be uplifted by music and to places of worship to pray. The last thing we should be thinking about in these uplifting places is pissing and shitting. We should have gone before we left home. To reinforce our guilt, the lavatories in such buildings are as demeaning as possible. Many do not offer soap or hot water. Very few provide wash-basins in cubicles.

Philipe Starck, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Julian Wickham and Eva Jiricna are some of the architects who can be relied on to design decent and even beautiful lavatories. Starck's - in Paris, New York and Tokyo - are some of the finest since the grand Victorian clubs and hotels. Both Foster and Rogers have experimented with "unisex" lavatories, based on those found in airliners, which incorporate wash-basins, hand-driers and other sensible conveniences. However, these have proved to be unpopular in Foster's Century Tower in Tokyo, not because the design was flawed, but because women object to the way the majority of men use lavatories as a form of self-expression and, without nanny on hand, are incapable of cleaning up after they have "been". This is not a peculiar characteristic of Japanese men: it appears to be universal, as if the public lavatory is one of the last refuges for the beast in civilised, office-working, gallery-going man. Can Herzog tame the beast?n

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