Event: OUTING THE WATER CLOSET: Sex, Gender, and the Public Toilet
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.03.07
Panel 1: The Social Construction of the Bathroom: Beatriz Colomina — Professor, History & Theory, Director of Graduate Studies, PhD Program, Princeton University; Clara Greed — Professor of Urban Planning and Architecture, University of the West of England; Dr. Ruth Barcan — Professor, Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, The University of Sydney, Australia; Dr. Barbara Penner — Professor in Architectural History and Theory, Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London); Deborah Taylor, AIA, LEED AP — Chief Sustainability Officer, NYC Department of Buildings; Matthew Sapolin — Executive Director, Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities; Bronwen Pardes — Sexual Health Educator, HIV Counselor, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital
Panel 2: Building Gender/Building Toilets: Joel Sanders, AIA — Principal, Joel Sanders Architect; Andrew Whalley, AA Dipl, AIA, RIBA — Partner-in-Charge, Grimshaw; David Lewis — Partner, Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis Architects; Charles McKinney — Chief of Design, NYC Department of Parks and Recreation; Pauline Park — Gender Rights Activist; Lori Pavese Mazor, AIA — Associate Vice President for Planning and Design, New York University; Harvey Molotch — Acting Director of the Program in Metropolitan Studies & Professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis and Department of Sociology, NYU
Organizers: New York University; Center for Architecture
Sponsors: AIANY; NYU Office of Campus Planning and Design; with support from NYU academic units: Graduate School of Arts and Science, Department of Sociology, Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, Gender and Sex Institute
Public restrooms have long been a source of anxiety, ranging from cleanliness and privacy to size restrictions and accessibility. Though designers may focus more on stall dimensions or number of sinks required by code, examining public restrooms from a cultural viewpoint calls attention to the things we take for granted. The water closet should not only be thought of as a physical space that services our biological needs, but also as a space of representation, reflecting normative ideas about gender, sex, and the body.
While designers take exhaustive measures to ensure visual discretion in public restrooms, boundaries are still transgressed by our senses of sound, touch, and smell. Whether from a wet door handle or lingering odor, explains Dr. Ruth Barcan, professor of gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney in Australia, these senses evoke an “unseen other” and fear of airborne contagion, agitating personal insecurities at our most vulnerable moment in public. For some, however, worries begin before entering the restroom. Gender specific signs can be a stopping point for those who fall outside the cultural binary of “men” and “women,” and parents with small children of the opposite gender must negotiate levels of appropriateness in choosing one door over the other. A possible solution — gender-neutral bathrooms — raises concerns about sexual violence and personal safety.
In general, public restroom design is guided by construction codes, which, as cultural texts, reflect our deep-seated prejudices about size, accessibility, or gender. By unpacking and reworking these codes, architects can respond to anxieties, and help provide a better sense of public relief.