In a discussion on how public amenities in our towns or cities are related to questions of gender and citizenship, public toilets are a good case in point. One should understand that in a country like India, sanitation facilities hold more value than a mere obligation. The question is whether we as a country can build infrastructure that promotes sanitation as a mix of sentiments and sanctity.

Today, the idea of the ‘citizen’, not the ‘neutral’ citizen but the ‘substantially equal citizen’ is an important lens to look at the societal system (Phadke, Ritual Pollution, 2013). This paper seeks to understand the provision of public toilets in modern-day India, looking for an ‘equal’ not ‘neutral’ approach to the design of such facilities. In an attempt to “design” sanitation facilities, Ar. Rohan Chavan has created ripples with the design of three unique modular public toilets situated in various parts of Mumbai. This article will look at deducing what makes our government-funded toilet facilities fail when critically pitched against the architect’s designs.

To place one in a context like the streets of India’s megacity Mumbai, some facts are to be kept in mind. The number of public toilets is grossly inadequate. One third is allocated to men’s urinals, one third for men’s toilets and the rest third for women’s toilets. These toilet facilities are pay and use as opposed to urinals which are free and open 24/7 (Phadke, Why Loiter?, 2011). In December 2003 when New York City Council passed legislation for women and men toilets to be an equal ratio (Council, 2003) in all public places, Mumbai was far behind to be able to grapple with growing populations by the day. The public toilet facilities are scarce at the busy local train stations. The Andheri station has four functional toilets, 2 on platform one, 1 on platform two and 1 on platform five (Phadke, Ritual Pollution, 2013). Given the above context, the following three case studies have been studied to see if they solve the state of sanitation facilities in the country.

The first case study is in Thane located on the sidewalk of a major road, the LightBox. The complex was designed as both a men’s and women’s facility, the female section however is built and is open for use. The building is built around a tree that was on site, and is a small 30 sq.mt complex of about 10 feet 6 inches in height. The facilities that the building extends to women on the streets is a diaper changing station, vending machines, ATM, nursing table along with primary functions of both styles of WC (Indian and European) and handicapped toilet. 

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THE LIGHTBOX restroom, Thane ©archdaily.com

The second case study is plugged into the Mumbai-Goa highway and serves as a restroom for travellers, with special focus on truck drivers, the Pause. The restroom aims at providing respite to truck drivers travelling long distances, with facilities like changing rooms, sleeping and seating areas, salon, tuck shop and ATM. This project seeks to integrate added functions along with toilet facilities to bring out the essence of the idea of a “restroom” as a pause point for a travellers comfort, his/her oasis. 

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THE PAUSE restroom, Mumbai ©archdaily.com

The third case study is a repurposed project in a courtyard of a restored building at the Bandra station, the Toilet in a Courtyard. The design of the toilet has been conceptualised around a courtyard for two reasons. One to express the idea of the courtyard to bring in a lot of sunlight that acts as a natural disinfectant, removing foul smell. Second, to contain the floating crowd at the Bandra station during rush hours. 

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THE TOILET IN A COURTYARD, Bandra ©archdaily.com

Now that one understands the context in which the buildings are set, the next step is to deduce what works in the design and how one transforms further these ideas to a workable model for toilets in the country.

Access and Circulation 

The three buildings provide access from a straight axial route; however, these entries are segregated for both genders and for the physically challenged. The separate entries facilitate the users to feel comfortable using the facility at their own rhythm. The circulation thus classifies areas at the entry of the building without the use of physical barriers and partitions.

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The lightbox restroom circulation diagram ©Ananya Nayak
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The pause restroom circulation diagram ©Ananya Nayak
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The toilet in a courtyard circulation diagram ©Ananya Nayak

Space and Function 

The ratio of the men to women toilet facilities are kept equal which is ideal. There is only one cash counter which now eliminates the need to have separate administrative staff for both genders. The beauty of the projects lie in the common spaces designed for both the genders where one forgets the imbalance in gender roles and perceives the openness of the space. This is where there is ample light, open breathing ground beneath trees, thus making the space well lit and ventilated. Spending an extra few minutes in this facility is no longer difficult for its users. This is where ‘designed sanitation facilities’ triumph, in imparting a pleasant user experience.

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The lightbox restroom spatial diagram ©Ananya Nayak
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The pause restroom spatial diagram ©Ananya Nayak
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The toilet in a courtyard spatial diagram ©Ananya Nayak

Light and Ventilation

There is a need for designers to understand that light and ventilation systems play an important role in keeping the space usable for longer periods of time. The projects therefore bring in ample light through the use of materials (polycarbonate sheets in the Light Box) and skylights (the roof in the Toilet in a Courtyard). The ventilation is brought in through keeping rooms well spaced out and providing open to sky roofs in common areas. The daylight and the well channelized breeze through strategically placed openings keep the toilet facility clean and usable.

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The lightbox restroom sectional diagram ©Ananya Nayak
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The pause restroom sectional diagram ©Ananya Nayak
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The toilet in a courtyard sectional diagram ©Ananya Nayak

Materials and Maintenance 

The use of materials as varied as locally sourced Kota stone, granite, MDF and aluminium; leads one to believe that there is a trend noticed in material selection. The material should be easy to clean, unique to look at, and should be accessible, affordable, and available. There is no formula to crack the material palette to a public toilet. On an urban scale, it should be easy to replicate and easier to assemble when one embarks on mass-producing and promoting these facilities in the country.

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The Lightbox materials ©archdaily
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The Pause restroom materials ©archdaily
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The toilet in a courtyard restroom materials ©archdaily

A hard look at the current government-funded poorly maintained facilities in contrast with what Ar. Chavan has tried to offer, one realizes design for modular facilities can be broken down into a simple solution. The basic amenities packaged in a comfortable, functional space are what the country is looking for. Under schemes like the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, when there is a need to impart dignity to sanitation facilities, the design is the first stepping stone. The awareness that is waiting to manifest is that public toilets are meant for the public, an ‘equal citizen’. Thus design needs to cater to the needs of the user.  The design of sanitation therefore needs to tap into the sentiments of the citizens. Design ideas like the ones discussed in the paper are to aid the existing public amenities.

Bibliography

Council, N. C. (2003). Sanitation Report. New York.

Phadke, S. (2013). Ritual Pollution. Gender Maps .

Phadke, S. (2011). Why Loiter? Mumbai.

Ananya Nayak
Author

Ananya Nayak, a student of architecture, a young writer, an avid reader and a gregarious conversationalist seeks to express her architectural understandings in writing. Architecture for her is a conversation; refreshing with a new guest, comforting with a loved one and unique with a co-passenger. And to write about architecture is to address a letter to multiple post boxes, the arrival of which will ring a different tune for each reader.

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