April 05, 2007

Bodily fluids

It was a familiar sight: a long line of women waiting to use the bathroom.

It was intermission after the first act of a famous musical. We were downtown last night – my mother, my sixteen-year-old niece, and me – to see a play that was on tour from the Big City Like No Other. Like all big productions that come to Snowstorm City, the play was performed in the main theatre housed in Big Brick Building. The lively first act had ended at about 9 pm, and we'd walked out from our seats on the mezzanine level to stretch our legs and use the bathrooms.

The line behind us was soon ridiculously long, mostly because of the poor design of the restroom, which featured an empty corridor, a room that held nothing but a huge mirror, a whole row of sinks with more mirrors, and then only three stalls, one of which was out of order. The restroom was spacious but had only two working toilets. It seems like whoever had designed this bathroom had somehow missed the point. Missed the point entirely.

I could just imagine what my architecture students would say about the design. How were all those mirrors going to help out someone who had been sitting in a theatre for a couple of hours and desperately needed to pee? What architect had designed a bathroom so ill-suited to the needs of patrons who need to get in and out quickly during a fifteen minute intermission?

"Wow, there's a lot of wasted space here, " I said as I looked around. I was talking to my mother, but the woman behind me jumped quickly into the conversation.

"I redesign this place in my head every time I come here," she said. She launched enthusiastically into her plan.

She'd eliminate the empty room with the big mirror that no one ever uses, get rid of four out of the five sinks, and add eight more stalls. One sink, with a small mirror above it, would be plenty, and could be moved out to the empty space that leads into the bathroom. Ten working toilets could get twenty women in and out in about five minutes.

It turns out that pretty much every woman in line had been redesigning the space in her head. Women in the line nodded and chimed in.

I am thinking that architect students who are planning to design public spaces should be required to find an overcrowded women's bathroom and interview anyone who has been standing in line for more than five minutes. That simple exercise could lead to revolutionary changes in the way restrooms are designed.

It seemed funny, I thought, as we left the building after the show. Clearly, the space had been designed with big crowds in mind: the staircases are wide, with escalators on both sides, and the corridors and foyers are huge. Certainly, the designer had given some thought to aesthetics: on one level, big glass corner windows give a lovely view of the city at dusk. You can look out at the big courthouse, the cathedral, the stone statue in the circle, and the mural painted on the sides of a building. But it seems that the architect forgot somehow, while designing the area around traffic patterns, that the hundreds of humans using the building would have bodies and bodily needs.

17 comments:

RageyOne said...

I recall when some stadium was being built, I think it was a sporting venue in Houston, TX, that the number of bathroom facilities for women were double the number for the men. Geniuns! I really believe that was stated in the plans prior it being built, that they had to do that.

(un)relaxeddad said...

wwI remember a Jane's Addiction show at the Brixton Academy in London a long time ago (1991?) where women (and a lot women would turn out for Perry Farrell) discovered the same issue. Half an hour in, first one then a whole mob of females invaded the men's toilet's. It was hysterical, watching these scenesters catching a glimpse in their peripheral vision and suddenly experiencing total cognitive dissonance. Not to mention extra-specially fast buttoning and zipping of pants. ("Man, there's girls in here! What's happening?")

Yankee T said...

More than once I took a dancing toddler into a men's room because there was NO TIME.

S. said...

Yes!

I think any one-seater is fair game, whatever the door says. I've noticed more restaurants are giving in to this inevitability.

Anonymous said...

Hee-hee-hee. I don't mean to laugh, but men would have peed in the sinks, on the floor in a corner, out the window, or just wandered for a moment outside behind a juniper bush. Women are catching up to men in all sorts of ways, and that's a good thing, and you've always been way ahead of us in others. But not when it comes to peeing... Hee-hee-hee...

Bitty said...

Clearly the facilities you visited were NOT designed by a woman.

When I was last in D.C. in 1990, I vaguely recall visiting extremely limited women's facilities just off the rotunda in the Capital. I presume few women were expected to visit when the toilets were designed?

And I too was at a concert once where the women revolted and stormed the men's room.

Gotta do what you gotta do.

todd said...

Be careful what you wish for. . .

Last time I went to see a professional baseball game (twenty two years ago; obviously I'm not much of a sports fan), it was at the Kingdome in Seattle. My younger brother and I went to the bathroom during one of the endless 'commercial breaks', to find not urinals, but a trough.

A TROUGH. In the middle of the room, that no one seemed the least bit bothered to walk up and pee into. My brother and I were slightly horrified as we made our way as close to the edge of the room as possible.

Disgusting. But effective, I suppose, so there you go.

Breena Ronan said...

You are assuming that the architect thought about the users, but I would argue that mostly the architect was thinking of the visual impression that those large spaces would make, the grandiosity (is that a word?) of it all.

Chip said...

or you could just gang up and hijack the men's room, which I've seen done a few times in situations like that.

Aliki2006 said...

Oh, yes--it just gets me when a building is so poorly designed in that way--long lines for toilets, ill-designed stalls...grrr...

Iris said...

I think we sometimes do the same thing in the church: spending most of our resources on how things "look" rather than on what matters most: people.

The Simpleton said...

My freshman year of college, I lived in a dorm that had farmously been designed by Minoru Yamasaki. The bathrooms were awkwardly carved out of dorm space, making each room oddly L shaped. Rumor has it that Yamasaki originally failed to put bathrooms in his design and they had to be added in the building process.

susan said...

seems like the architects manage to take care of the hundreds of men's biological needs--rarely any lines for the men's rooms in such places.

Didn't one state have a "potty parity" bill a while back? (A little googling reveals that yes, there have been several, including one passed by the Council of the City Like No Other).

Mona Buonanotte said...

I think we need to get an architect's view here...are bathrooms a 'throwaway' addition to any blueprint? 'Cause, really, when you have kids, they are one of the most important things. You can tell a lot about a business by the bathrooms.

Oh yeah, and I've stormed mens' rooms before, and in a college town, the guys don't seem to mind too much.

Anjali said...

I must have been in the exact same place, and seen the same show. We were all talking about the exact same thing.

codfish said...

What a great post! I'm with Bitty - any woman would have realised a viable female bathroom definitely requires more than 3 stalls! It's weird how men still don't seem to get how long women's bathroom queues can get (because/that's why the facilities are so inefficiently designed!) - they seem to think we spend all that time having ice-cream and scones or something. This post is so funny - thanks! :-D

julieunplugged said...

Your post reminded me of my high school. We were in a brand new school where the architects FORGOT student bathrooms all together in the main building. We had to exit the building and go to the PE room bathrooms any time the need arose.

I really think you're onto something here - teaching architectural students how to design the perfect public bathrooms. I think airports often get it right. :)