Arts and Culture

Deep read: Minding our pees and queues

Brent Meersman

On World Toilet Day, we take a look at the state of public facilities, from the humblest latrines to the most opulent thrones.

A public toilet in Diepsloot. (Jennifer van den Bussche)

Much to our amusement when we were kids, we learned that there was a ballcock in the cistern, and that Thomas Crapper invented the flush toilet. Not true of course. He was a sanitaryware salesman who put loos in his showrooms and is credited with destigmatizing the convenience.

Moving the toilet from the outhouse into the home was a big step that took a long time to gain acceptance. Queen Elizabeth I had a commode in the palace, but much preferred having the maid bring the chamber pot to her. At Louis XVI’s court in Versailles they used to pee behind the curtains.

Our interface with the privy remains ambivalent. While travelling in exotic climes, the public loo is a source of anxiety and often horror for the Western tourist. Coming across nothing more than a hole in the ground above a cesspit with no toilet paper and wasps nesting in the eaves, reduces some tourists to tears and constipation. Actually, the squat toilet provides a much healthier posture and using water, or the “bum gun”, is far more hygienic than toilet paper.

Some environmentalists believe the Western flush toilet is a wasting ecological disaster, while others believe it has saved innumerable lives from sickness such as dysentery, cholera and diarrhoea. Currently 2.6-billion people on the planet do not flush. Along the road to Bombay airport you see long lines of Indian commuters squatting by the roadside. In the slums of Nairobi one finds the “flying toilet”; people crap into plastic bags and then fling them as far as they can. On some otherwise pristine island beaches, one can follow the tidal mark by a dotted line of turds.

It is the presence of a sewer system that saves lives not necessarily the way poo is deposited.

In Cape Town, a political stink about public latrines without walls thrust the importance of dignified defecation into public consciousness.

The private and public
In August, Bill Gates showcased his toilet quest for the self-contained loo that uses neither water nor requires sewerage, and which preferably generates power. One of the designs to emerge from his challenge is now being tested in South Africa.

Gates’s outstanding initiative was greeted with some bemusement and lots of giggling. Like fart jokes, our response to the toilet remains childish (I hope the reader will appreciate that it has taken great restraint not to litter this article with puns and double entendre).

The toilet is a contested terrain, a space where the private and the public intersect; where our basic animal nature contradicts our civilised self-conception. Perhaps this is why people effuse about answering the call of nature when they are in nature, sitting on a loo with a view – while on a hiking trail or overlooking the sea.

But in the urban environment cultures clash; notions of hygiene and acceptable practice differ. In parts of China you may come across urinals for women to pee standing. Urinals shaped like mouths at a public facility in Vienna had to be removed after feminist protests. And what does a member of a conservative religion do at Schipol Airport when the cleaning lady barges in and casually starts mopping the floor around his feet?

Never mind the Western tourist challenged with a seatless toilet on a moving train in outer Mongolia, South Africans travelling to Europe in the 1970s and even 1980s were in for a culture shock too when confronted with pissoirs on the streets of Paris or expected to do their business under the watchful stare of a matron. They were outraged at having to pay a few francs to take a pee in the Belgian café where they had just had an expensive lunch, and in the early 1990s they were perplexed by the arrival of the unisex toilet.

Incidentally, a co-ed school in northern Thailand recently introduced a third toilet for sexually undecided children.

It is remarkable that such an unavoidable and constant requirement seems so often to be treated by architects as beneath their concern or as an afterthought.

Naughty business
Municipal authorities regard the restroom as a necessary evil. Landlords loathe the expense of the public convenience and their attitude is often at best perfunctory towards these spaces. The ablution block exposes its proprietor to irritation. It can be a refuge for the homeless; a place for junkies to shoot up; or for the likes of Sir John Gielgud and George Michael to have sex.

Cottaging is not uniquely British. Despite the internet, many public toilets remain edgy places with telephone numbers and lewd diagrams scribbled on the walls. The ever-recurring peephole drilled in the partition of the men’s cubicle in the Lifestyle centre on Kloof Street is one irrepressible case.

In Cape Town among the most notorious lavatories for cruising were the Strand Parkade, the Garden Centre and the main train station. The last of these remains very cruisy, but is also the stinkiest toilet in the city.

Proprietors go to great lengths to prevent such naughty business, from installing a security guard to creating a cubicle for the janitor with a window facing the action. The Golden Acre, formerly also a playground for men who have sex with men, introduced a coin-operated iron turnstile.

The tourist influx and the FIFA World Cup saw the upgrading of many public toilets in the city. The infamously filthy loos on Greenmarket Square now boast metal urinals and motion sensor controlled taps and flushes. Renovations a few years ago to the V&A Waterfront saw the thoughtful addition of tiled squat loos to broaden its cultural base.

Possibly the best shopping mall loos are at Wembley Square. Large, clean and spacious, always equipped with soap, hand-drier, as well as paper towels, your personal thunder box has solid doors and walls to trap smells and noises, which not only relieves one from potential embarrassment, but also shows consideration for others. These days it is of course not uncommon to hear the entire half of a cellphone conversation from a neighbouring cubicle.

New studies have revealed the “toilet sneeze”; flushing a lidless toilet sends aerosolised viruses several meters into the surroundings. In domestic situations these bugs land on toothbrushes and quickly spread tummy trouble to other members of the family. One shudders to think about public spaces where many toilets are not only lidless but without seats.

Mindfulness around the public comfort station continues to evolve. Baby-changing facilities in the male loo (which I came across in South Africa for the first time at the Johannesburg Museum Africa) are becoming trendy.

However, discrimination against women persists. Providing equal floor space for the Gents and the Ladies leads in fact to inequitable access, since women need more time. Invariably there is a long queue at the ladies in busy department stores and cinemas or at interval time in theatres.

Rooms with a view
Restaurants and hotels seem to take the most trouble. These can be quite kinky, such as those of the swanky Standard Hotel in Manhattan which has 3-metre glass fronts with the commode facing out. It might be on the 18th floor, but one is entirely visible from the street.

On the other hand, a pathetic loo experience always leaves me thinking less of an establishment. It brings into question the owner’s commitment to the customer, not to mention their hygiene standards.

Fortunately, many of Cape Town’s restaurants and hotels have made a concerted effort with their toilets. The urinal at the former Metropole Hotel had a massive fish tank at breast level through which the men could look out into the main corridor while relieving themselves.

Other funky toilets include the pink loo at Masala Dosa replete with an upside down cow on the roof; the elegant Japanese garden themed toilet at Kyoto Sushi; the playful toilets crammed with knick-knacks at Sidewalk Café and Café Mozart; and the urinal reimagined as a hand basin at Maria’s on Dunkley Square.

Perhaps the most lavish and inventive are those of the Protea Fire and Ice Hotel. Each toilet has a theme. Lou Rawls (a pun) has a wall-sized portrait of the singer above a glass washbasin and an entire wall of toilet rolls in stainless steel fittings. Long Drop has cityscapes and rusty scaffolding; the Outhouse, newspaper covered walls and the basin embedded in a petrol drum. Temptation has full frontal nude photos of two models with the towel rail strategically placed; pull back the towel and an alarm goes off. Stage Fright has floor to ceiling mirrors as well as a photo of an audience watching one on the throne.

The toilet is finally getting its due and the public are maturing in their response. Sex was once a subject off-limits or cause for sniggering; one wonders, will our other more bodily function ever shrug its stigma?


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