Essay Review of The Bathroom: Small Spaces, Vast Systems

December 21, 2012
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Reading The Bathroom: Small Spaces, Vast Systems published in Places by Dr. Barbara Penner, senior lecturer at Bartlett School of Architecture UCL, challenges one to think beyond the status quo for global sanitation design of toilets, hygiene, and sewers. Penner is not your typical architect. She pushes disciplinary boundaries to decipher historical and sociological elements of design, challenges inequality in mainstream design formats, and has a special penchant for toilets. She has already written and contributed to several pieces about toilet spaces including: Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender, Gender Space Architecture, and Toilet: The Politics of Sharing. She is currently working on Bathroom, a Cultural History of the Bathroom (forthcoming).

Barbara PennerPenner begins The Bathroom detailing her visit to the famous artist-designed public bathrooms at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin. She questions why humans covet toilet privacy but often fail to remember the pipes which connect us to a greater water and sewer whole. “Small rooms, big systems,” she says. Using the example of historical bath-houses, she posits the transition of communal to fiercely private washing, bathing, and toileting was rooted in the rise of the bourgeoisie and industrialization. Further, she examines why the water-based toilet as an idolized model has spread globally: “For the story of how western bathrooms came to be locked in is not only a story of trade but also a story of empire, colonial expansion and war.” Such systems might meet needs of some people [those able to afford expansive infrastructure and who culturally embrace sitting instead of squatting], but not all [those in water-scarce areas or with alternative approaches to toileting].

While Penner broaches solutions for design of dignified and equitable sanitation systems, she talks mostly about the cultural, historical, and technological development of toilets throughout her essay. She fervently and rightly believes toilets are a human right and people should be included in development of their own sanitation systems. But perhaps a bit more background about the science behind waterless systems versus water-based systems could enrich the debate. Nevertheless, she expertly encourages all readers, all Westerners, and all people to think more about our built environments to ensure oppression is not occurring vis-à-vis design. She champions dual underdogs: the toilet and the Other. The Bathroom: Small Spaces, Vast Places is a must read for anyone interested in community development, social equality, or water and sanitation provision.

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    Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human, or PHLUSH, is an all-volunteer advocacy group based in Portland's Old Town Chinatown. We collaborate with grassroots organizations, environmental activists, planners, architects, code officials and city managers. We receive support from the Old Town Chinatown Community Association and Neighbors West-Northwest. PHLUSH is a member of the World Toilet Organization and a partner in the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance.

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