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How We Live Now opens at the Barbican

The need to go is universal, yet the provision of facilities to do so is anything but. Lockdown in London has exposed the failings of the public sector to provide sufficient sanitary infrastructure, failings which have a long history.

In London, a city normally abounding with restaurants, bars and galleries, those of us who are able-bodied and with disposable income never had to worry about public toilets. The Covid-19 lockdowns which have halted the consumerist landscape, have shut restaurants and pubs across the capital, and by corollary their toilets. Now, in a city suddenly without plentiful private sector loos, London's chronic lack of decent public toilet provision has been laid bare.

During the first lockdown, Londoners were allowed outside ‘for exercise’ once a day and later on, as restrictions eased, they were able to meet friends in parks. It was warm and sunny, and with London’s numerous green spaces, its residents took advantage of the eased rules. But, as quickly became clear, encouraging people to spend more time outside without making more provision for public toilets does not add up. Reports of people urinating and defecating in public piled in. A banner appeared on the fence of Clissold Park bellowing ‘The park is not a toilet, if you need to go then go home.’ Yet despite the indignant insistence of banners, Twitter warriors and journalists, for many, going home was simply never an option. Public parks without public toilets are unusable for large groups of society.

Journalist Leslie Lowe lists the groups of people who depend on free access to public toilets in her book ‘No Place To Go’: those who are pregnant or menstruating, parents with small children, the elderly, people suffering with Crohn’s disease or with ostomies and other disabilities – in short, the need is not unusual. What we call ‘conveniences’ are for many really necessities and yet in most British cities, including London, the burden to provide toilets has been placed on the private sector. But examining the history of public toilets in Britain shows the denial of facilities to various groups in society is nothing new. Marginalised groups have for a long time struggled against gender, class, race and physical mobility prejudice for decades.

The familiar landmark of wrought iron railings with prominent ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’ signs heralding stairs leading below street level are iconic reminders of London's earlier public lavatories, but do not tell the entire story of how Victorian public conveniences came to be. Prior to the modern industrial age, toilets were often communal. Strict segregation arrived only in the nineteenth century, ushered in with growing anxieties over bodily display, privacy and rigid gender roles which continue to influence toilet design to this day.

In Victorian London, it was not only a new desire for privacy that dictated lavatory design but also new inflexible ideas of gender tied to the an increasing separation of domestic and public spheres. When public restrooms were first constructed in Victorian England, they were almost exclusively for men. Women’s conveniences caused such controversy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries London that it took five years of campaigning by the Ladies’ Sanitary Association for the local authority to consent to opening women's loos in Park Street, Camden. The issue was so contentious that motorists resorted to open sabotage, intentionally crashing into a timber mock-up of the toilets. In truth, the battle was not just about loos, but allowing women to move through and occupy public space in London more freely, which misogynists of the day deemed to contradict their belief that women belong at home.

Even after ladies’ lavatories started appearing in London alongside mens’, they were often much smaller and with fewer cubicles. (An imbalance justified by their designers as being due to women being too modest to make use of the facilities.) And whilst the use of urinals in mens’ bathrooms was predominantly free, sit-down WCs had to be paid for proving an additional barrier for female users. The rigid ideas about womens’ rights as well as about the ideal of femininity as something private, modest and surrounded by shame are epitomised in a plan of waiting rooms and conveniences in Bristol from 1898. Ladies’ restrooms are not only few in provision but also hidden deep in the plan and accessed via a series of rooms. Out of sight, out of mind.

As hard-won women's public toilets gradually became more numerous, the tight confines of the idea of femininity were revealed. Upper and middle class women were afforded the label of ‘ladies’ and finally got places to pee, but their working class counterparts were often treated very differently. Academic Barbara Penner in her paper titled ‘A World of Unmentionable Suffering. Women’s Public Conveniences in Victorian London’ describes a case in which separate ‘first class’ ladies facilities were proposed in an unbuilt design by James Stevenson in 1879 on the basis that ‘women of the middle class will not be willing to company, for however short a time, with a promiscuous crowd, even of their own sex.’ Meanwhile, the prevalence of charging for the use of public toilets on top of tax revenues continued to create a class gap in access to facilities.

During the twentieth century, as well as gender and class, racism became another driver of segregating public toilets. In South Africa and United States of America, racially segregated toilets were commonplace long into the twentieth century. Desegregated facilities had to be fought for and once the courts decided in favour of them, there was still a lot of work to do by ‘freedom riders’, who travelled the country and checked whether the restrooms were truly desegregated, often falling victim to violence and hostility.

I believe there are clear parallels between the experiences of Victorian women in the nineteenth century, racialised people in the twentieth century and transgender people today. Inhabitants of ‘non-compliant bodies’, as researcher and architect Joel Sanders calls people who don't fall neatly into one of the two rigidly-defined gender categories, often face abuse or policing when attempting to use bathrooms which match their gender identity but not their sex. Just as in the past the prospect of working class women using public loos, was seen as a threat to the established social order, for some today, transgender people accessing public toilets also challenges conservative cultural norms.

In a project titled 'Stalled' Sanders suggests design solutions in order to better welcome non-heteronormative and non-binary people to public toilets. In it, he calls for the creation of ‘all-gender’ facilities with independent cubicles, each containing a WC and their own sink. Instead of adjusting the existing system, Sanders suggests a complete reinvention. The prototype design for airport facilities includes ‘a semi-open agora-like precinct that is animated by three parallel activity zones, each dedicated to grooming, washing and eliminating.’ ‘Stalled’ strips back and unpacks the practical requirements around public toilets in order to suggest a solution that addresses the biological, cultural and psychological factors, away from the increasingly out of date binary gender system, which currently fails to cater to everyone.

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