interrogating the public bathroom space
Jan 2019 - May 2020
Cherry Wu, Margaret Crawford (Thesis Supervisor)
Site Observations, Ethnographic Interviews,
Visual/ Graphic Design, Photomontage
“Interrogating the Women’s Public Bathroom Choreography” is a comparative investigation in the design, use, and differences between women’s public bathrooms of East Asia and the U.S. The research attempts to decipher hidden social dynamics in women’s public bathrooms and to explore the varying socio-economical and cultural implications behind the structure. It also calls attention to how architects and planners should examine opportunities to connect shifts in social structure with shifts in the physical environment
This research is completed as fulfillment for my B.A. in Urban Experience Design requirement
at UC Berkeley.
The public bathroom, a seemingly private topic, has emerged as a potent window into broader social attitudes, structure, and power inequalities today. While flushing the toilets connects the space with a larger ‘hard’ network of pipes and plants, it also introduces us to a ‘soft’ network of social attitudes and beliefs.
My initial experience of uneasiness in a differently-cultured public bathroom space prompted me to explore the extent to which spatial design and urban technologies can inform social behaviors. From skipping a stall, avoiding conversations in the queue, to managing personal appearances at the sink area, the same social rituals are performed routinely at offices, restaurants, malls, and even airports. I was inspired to decipher these facilities that shape our repertoires and personal choreographies, and how individual behaviors and preferences are deeply entrenched and ingrained into the design of built structures.
Exploring the Public
The public collides uneasily with the private in bathrooms as changing behaviors in the space continually reproduce varying degrees of publicness. I thereby intend to depict the plurality of contesting publics via a two-dimensional plan resembling the Nolli Map. The drawing deliberately inverses the figure-ground drawing mechanism and leaves many of the enclosed spaces unshaded to critique the fluid definition of "the public”. Moreover, the act of “folding the map” also signifies the overlapping boundaries between the private and the public evident in bathroom spaces.
As a preliminary study, I observed and compared over fifty female public bathrooms in the U.S, Hong Kong, and Japan and collected photographic evidence. I also engaged myself in many “bathroom conversations” to probe into the experiences and attitudes of female-identifying users both from the U.S and East Asia within the designed space.
A total of 10 female-identifying interviewees from the Bay Area, Hong Kong, and Taipei City from age 16 to 56 were instructed to describe their experiences in public restrooms. The ethnographic interviews were conducted in a conversational and discussion-based format, allowing participants to counter the conventional status differences between the researcher and subjects. This also provided participants the control and space to define their own concerns, remedies, and to connote personal experiences that better inform our research goals.
In addition, the research consisted of a series of public bathroom visits, participant observations, and an annotated photo collection. This method allowed me to immerse myself in the social setting of a public bathroom and make detailed observations based on the social choreography of the experience that can be interpreted to unfold informative behaviors and patterns.
In response to the findings, I crafted a visual journey that features the different social routines coining the women’s public bathroom experience. The piece consists of 7 connected frames, each one representing a key stage or pivotal moment in the bathroom choreography.
The use of photomontage as a mode of production is a critique of the boundaries of sharing. The method blurs the lines between public vs. private, functional vs. social, and reveals patterns of the interplay between physical and social spaces. The piece urges the audience to consider the possibility of an alternative ‘inclusive’ bathroom experience and challenge the underlying assumptions and formalism reinforced by ‘pigeon-holed’ architectural theories, practices, and design approaches.
Toilets as a Backstage
Despite the lack of visual methodology, the public bathroom is a space of discipline, established on an unspoken set of interpersonal rituals and rules. More interestingly, the silent instructions in the space allow for users to act and deliberate in concert. The norms upheld in this private yet public setting assert more fully how users adhere to shared behavioral guidelines and the meaning that the urban environment attributes to them.
Once the door to the stall is closed, the space is transformed into the occupying individual's temporary escape – to relax, drop their front and step out of character before re-entering their routined public performance. Thus, bathrooms are often used as a “backstage” for private acts, where people are protected by the “tactful blindness” of others.
At their best, gender-segregated public bathrooms can be a social space for women, even a refuge. It is where users, from separate stalls, gossip, and chatter, do each other’s makeup. Moreover, toilet graffiti can take various expressions in cubical walls allowing for oppositions to be projected as a form of silent protest away from the male gaze. These messages highlight the deeply held, gender-specific cultural beliefs and preoccupations that women resist.
The public bathroom experience is shaped by a wide range of cultural, social, and geographical factors.
Apart from the common examples of sitting vs. squatting toilets, high-tech washlets in Japan reflect the country’s fanatical attitudes towards cleanliness – including the desire not to disturb others, the importance of separating hands from bodily functions, and the belief that “technology is always a friendly extension of oneself” all come to life in the confines of the cubicle. Meanwhile, American standard stalls with large openings are most often criticized for how they complicate the struggle for a modicum of privacy.