Going public 

Count on the poets to get this one right. About sex, I mean, and public toilets and architecture. It’s William Butler Yeats – a Nobel laureate – who provides the definitive line. "Love has pitched his mansion," Yeats wrote, "in the place of excrement."

Now that’s not so gloomy or gross as it sounds. More a paradox, really. Like the architecture that contains, obscures and otherwise accommodates the public commission of our most intimate acts. Or rather the public handling of the intimate body parts required to make those acts possible and communally acceptable, which also happen to be the same body parts we use in the commission of those other acts that Yeats refers to as "love."

And that’s where things really get interesting. Because the same nerves that make the latter activity so gratifying are also engaged – lots of them – when we commit a "number one" or a "number two." Neurons being what they are, they’re not concerned what the source of the good times is; they’re just here to party! So two kinds of pleasure get immediately conflated. Just think about it: the dizzy sense of release, the self-annihilating aaaah, the little death that poetic clichés are sprung from.

Which is what makes so intriguing the nether world of public toilets, where things people normally do only behind locked doors – privately, even secretly perhaps – go on within sight, smell and hearing of others. Strangers, most of them. Gathered for the synesthetic peep show facilitated by this most anonymous genre of architecture.

Ever hear of a great toilet architect? Who even knows if a specific person is responsible for the design? Nevertheless, here we all are, taking ourselves palpitantly in hand, doing intimate things together at very close range that most of us would never think of doing with another person around. Except here, within this extraordinary, impersonal domain that turns strangers into intimates, and vice versa.

Consider this. Would you gladly have the beloved in the stall next to you when the needful moment arrives? Yet the two of you have visited the same sites together which are currently engaged, some of them at least. So what is it about this inside-out place that’s special?

For one thing, the public toilet is not really public at all, in the sense that showers for a high school gym class, for instance, are public. But toilets aren’t private either, like the shower at your house. Instead, there’s an intentional blurring of public and private space, and with it an invitation to a complex, multisensory voyeurism that is unique in our culture.

Stall doors and walls – if there are any – never reach all the way to the ground or ceiling, so that everything that happens is immediately shared, communal, in the air of collective discourse, so to say. Nowhere else will you be invited to know an anonymous stranger so intimately and in so many different ways, the entire sensorium – touch, hearing, sight, smell, taste – being immediately engaged.

Or take the urinal. Now, there’s an emblematic instance of teaser populism, whether the quotidian trough or a high-end, designer waterfall. I’m not just talking about the peek-a-boo comparison shopping of a culture obsessed with size – of breasts and butts, penises and thighs. That goes on everywhere surreptitiously, from library to locker room. I’m talking about what’s happening when the comparing gets done.

In a communal shower, there’s a polite disengagement from the intimate use one’s anatomy can be put to. At least that’s how things are supposed to happen. Not so in the public toilet, where the nerve sites of intimacy are all atingle, by design, at the precise moment when the invitation to share space with somebody else is delivered.

And that’s what makes this anonymous architecture so extraordinary. It achieves its effects as if effortlessly, without thought or apparent design. And maybe that’s why it succeeds, as architecture. Because it is so obviously unself-conscious. And maybe that’s why the toilet becomes not only a synesthetic commune, but a confessional as well. More perhaps for women than for men. But a confessional still. (Just read the handwriting on the walls. Literally.)

It’s where you might sidle up with two guys who’ve come in here so one of them can call his other girlfriend because the woman he’s with, sitting back at the bar, is starting to bore him, for reasons he now begins graphically to explain – as we face the wall collegially, doing what needs to be done, staring absently at the pages of the Wall Street Journal hung up to distract us from the business at hand.

Or (true story, my informant swears) like in the women’s room at a swanky restaurant, where an unseen communicant begins to unburden herself, across the stall to a friend next door, about an extraterrestrial abduction she’s undergone, and how the room falls silent while the woman explains – after various acts up and down the row are finished and before the general flushing begins – that during her abduction, she’s found out how God is really a woman. Where else but here, I ask you, under the influence of this extraordinary space?

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