Bathrooms and Public Space: Really?

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When was the last time you were in a public bathroom that was whimsical? How about a public bathroom that was beautiful? Joyful and lovely?

For readers who come to this site to read about playgrounds and public space, please don’t despair. I have a point to make and I will get there soon.

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But first I want to tell you about the National Tourist Routes (NTR) in Norway. These are 18 discontinuous routes where, since 2005, the Norwegian government through its Public Roads Administration has invested heavily in improving amenities for tourism. The government has graced roads with “exciting stopping points” which deepen visitor experience. To that end, they have commissioned over 50 architects (all are Norwegian except Peter Zumthor who has created two projects, one of which had not yet opened when I was there in August) to design viewing platforms, parking areas, staircases, bridges, and, yes, bathrooms. A parallel program exists to assure is at least one internationally significant art piece rests along each route. The underlying philosophy is that these roads are never static. Jan Andresen of NTR has explained that they have to continue to evolve to bolster tourism and to meet changing needs and “future tourists’ expectations.” The commissions are also an incubator for the talent of local, young designers.

While the roads and scenery are incredible, I am intrigued by the bathrooms. Each is unique, architect designed, often free standing and suitable to its setting.   Have a look at three examples: Hereiane service building (Susanne Puchberger of 3RW Architects, 2008); Flotane rest room (LBJ Architecture And Landscape – Lars Berge, 2010); the Stegastein rest area (Todd Saunders and Tommie Wilhelmsen, 2006). While all three are sensational – Flotane looks like a partially buried, skewed cube on a barren mountain summit and Stegastein overhangs a majestic fjord that is more than 2000 feet below- I want to concentrate on Hereiane which is on Hardangar fjord.

The 3RW firm is typical of many which have been chosen for the NTR Project. They are young (the firm was established in 1999 in Bergen), progressive, and often work on inter-disciplinary projects. They see architecture as a social tool. Puchberger, who was trained in Austria, was the lead architect for the firm for this bathroom. Her task was to create two stalls.

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The Hereiane bathroom is a bit different from most other NTR commissions. While there is usually a competition for the entire site, this project had one firm (not 3RW) design the adjacent cut rock and pathways. That firm designed a bathroom that was not acceptable to the NTR. 3RW therefore entered the project to create a bathroom; the parking lot and size of the bathroom footprint were already decided.   Puchberger ‘s solution was a simple rectangular structure with a steep roof. She created a design that evokes a simple house; following the wishes of the local municipality, she chose slate as the building material. The quarry is nearby, about 100 meters away. Puchberger used this slate as structure with rough striations on the interior and cut blocks on the exterior. To set off the grey slate, she chose yellow as a contrasting color. It enlivens the interior walls of bathrooms and extends that color to the polyurethane surfacing that surrounds the small building. The color functions as a type of marker that draws the attention of drivers on the road. The polyurethane not only emphasizes the stark slate as a distinct element but it also “mounds” into a small “hill” at the corner. Given the closeness of the bathrooms to the parking lot, Puchberger saw this as an amusing play element, one that would keep children from running into traffic since it would divert their attention and slow them down before they dashed to the car.

There are several lessons we can learn from Puchberger’s work. The most obvious is that we should not neglect bathrooms when thinking about public space. That applies to gathering spots in general and playgrounds in particular. With the exception of the new underground bathrooms at Dolores Park in San Francisco (Aitken & Harrison, 2016), I don’t know of any rest rooms in the US that exceed being indestructible and dull facilities.

The second message, an extension of the first, is we can have public space that is a seamless total package; it can include the primary and the secondary uses ( my architecture friends will see overtones here of Lou Kahn). We need to see these as continuous and believe that both are worth celebrating. They are both art works that enrich our lives. The bathroom extends public space into a private area yet it functions as another aspect of the public entity. This type of bathroom may be a new building type and the kind of creation the NTR has hoped to nurture since these, according to Nina Berre of Norsk Form, make “it possible to develop new expressions for new typologies that do not have traditions on which to build.”

As readers of this column know, I believe strongly that architects and landscape architects should be our playscape authorities. They can improve our spaces in ways we had never considered. We should allow them to create challenging, unique areas in which children play. At the same time, we should ask them to enhance these play areas with appropriate places for adults as well as bathroom facilities for all. I believe that the NTR communicates to its visitors that it values them and wants to make sure that their limited time on its roads is memorable. As a tourist, this is an exhilarating message, even in the bathroom.

tod-saunders

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