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A room with a loo

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The Architects' Journal of 4 March 1937 carried a learned article by H A J Lamb entitled 'Sanitation: an historical survey', which traced the history of the wc from 1350bc Egypt to the installation of the latest model in the new riba building at 66 Portland Place: 'A low level type . . . red mahogany seat . . . three gallon flush'. The steady stream of literature which has appeared since - some serious, some hilarious - is heavily indebted to Lamb.

For centuries the wc has been the inspiration for a rich specialised vocabulary combining euphemism with suggestiveness (necessarium, restroom, bog) and a never-ending deluge of tension-easing 'dirty' jokes - a vital outlet for mental and bodily waste.

How architects handle this essential space can tell us much about changing conventions, shifting design trends and current environmental concerns.

Lamb noted that by the end of the nineteenth century 'the wc was cloaked with a certain amount of dignity, and it was not uncommon to find it installed in a carpeted room mounted on a platform . . . the vase discreetly camouflaged by willow patterning and the cistern politely disguised by carved boxing wood'. In the 1990s dignity has given way to expediency. We no longer have time to shit in state on mounted platforms, no attempt is made to camouflage the 'vase' - it stands revealed in all its minimalist glory.

When the Lord Chancellor's refurbished apartments in the Palace of Westminster were opened earlier this year, journalists could not contain their curiosity about Lord Irvine's privy and were bitterly frustrated to find that the door was locked. Somehow, Jonathan Glancey managed to outflank his peers (or was there a leak?) and spread the news that 'the Lord Chancellor's throne is a handsome country-house thunderbox crowned with a finely wrought Gothic cistern.' (Guardian/Space 3.3.98). Discussion of the Lord Chancellor's wc arrangements would have been unthinkable a few years ago. At about the same time, a new London restaurant, Mash, received more publicity for its men's wc - which sports a strategically placed distorting mirror - than for the quality of its food or service.

Attitudes to privacy change. The Romans used companionable multi-holed conveniences; courtiers at Hampton Court in the reign of Henry viii shared a partitionless two-tiered bench (the waste was ducted into the Thames), and privies attached to country houses frequently had two or three adjacent seats, with smaller ones for younger members of the family. If the function of the smallest room can now be openly discussed over dinner in a restaurant, why should the room itself remain screened from view? In 1990s apartment fit-outs, a panel of sandblasted glass is often the only screening between bedroom and en-suite shower/wc. Bar 89 in Soho, New York, designed by Gilles Depardon, features a prominent wall of transparent wc cubicles; the doors become opaque when the closing mechanism passes an electric current through a gel in the laminated glass. Rick Mather Associates has used a similar material called Priva-lite (made by Saint Gobain, supplied by Solaglas and very expensive). Are we shedding a century of inhibitions inherited from the Victorians as we approach the millennium and returning to a more relaxed attitude to our bodily functions? Is the wc itself finally emerging from the closet?

Another new development is the invasion of the wc by television. An Oxford pub recently installed a tv in the gents' so that customers need not miss a second of the World Cup; tvs, tuned to baseball matches, are common in us bars and reported eye-level openings in the wall of the gents' at Lord's perform a similar sporting function. At the Paramount pub in Aberdeen and at Shimla Pinks, Birmingham, tv screens are built into the urinals. Programmes vary from the promotional to the political - this last being in direct descent from chamber-pots decorated with political villains such as Napoleon and Hitler.

If civilisations can be measured by their provision of public conveniences, as the Victorian wc pioneer and designer George Jennings maintained, the uk would appear to be heading rapidly back to the Dark Ages. Under the 1936 Public Health Act, local authorities have 'power but no obligation' to provide public conveniences. Councils are now selling off their purpose- built conveniences, many of them fine Edwardian structures, and all we can hope for in their stead is the mis-named claustrophobic 'super loo' or apc (automatic public convenience).

Run-down public conveniences may become trouble spots, but Piers Gough's Westbourne Grove example proves triumphantly that a well-designed and cared-for convenience can make a positive contribution to an area. Architecture plb has achieved a similar transformation of a run-down convenience in Winchester (see page 35).

Concluding his 1937 article on sanitation, Lamb predicted that 'stringent regulations regarding the quantity of water used for flushing purposes' would restrict future developments of the wc. This is even more true today with water shortage driving research into efficient waterless systems (see page 45). The Millennium Dome will act as an invaluable testing ground for innovative sanitation systems, such as the waterless urinals ordered from Waterless uk which use a cartridge to trap urine and kill odours without using any water. The system has already proved a success at Heathrow Airport.

Just as the Great Exhibition of 1851 was the first event of its kind to provide public wcs to relieve 'the sufferings which must be endured by all, but more especially by females', giving many their first experience of a flushing wc, so the Millennium Dome may provide visitors with their first experience of the wc of the future - the 'waterless closet'.

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