101 Bathrooms: Cultural Commod(e)ity
Designed by a threesome at the heart of domestic modernism—Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Charlotte Perriand—the toilet combined an homage to the machine age with a resolute cosmopolitanism. Knee-level hinged seat fixtures were cantilevered together from the wall above a ceramic bowl in the floor. Depending on their preferred technique, users could position the fixtures to choose between standing, sitting, and squatting. A basin could also lower to serve as a bidet.
Pondered, presupposed, or suppressed, intimacy is inherent to every toilet design. With candid readiness, this toilet brought cultural tolerance into an intimate human function. It attempted to bridge the gap between toilet-visiting styles that can loosely be dubbed Eastern and Western: squatting and washing with water (Eastern) versus sitting and wiping with paper (Western). It carefully entwined a psychoanalytical interest in excretion with visions of a modernist utopia that might bridge the gap between distinct societies. Perhaps, the toilet silently proposed, open-mindedness begins in the bathroom.
As the Corbusier/Jeanneret/Perriand toilet approaches its 70th anniversary, human beings are traveling the globe and intermingling regional customs at unprecedented speeds, yet a cursory glance at world events suggests we are a long way from respecting each others’ cultural differences. But when it comes to toilets, exactly what are those differences?
The Eastern and Western designations hold true only if we allow for exceptions. In most of the Middle and Far East, squatting toilets are the norm, though sitting toilets abound in major metropolises, tourist destinations, and Japan. Sitting toilets dominate the Americas and western Europe, but squatting ones are often found in areas of Eastern influence, such as Mediterranean countries and Chinese neighborhoods.
As for wiping versus washing, the former has been habitual in the West, perhaps ever since the ancient Romans wiped with a sponge on a stick that sat in a bucket of saltwater for reuse. Toilet paper, which has been sold by the roll in America since the late 1800s, was invented in China in the 14th century for the use of emperors. Washing is ubiquitous in Japan, where cleanliness is a national obsession, and all over the Middle East, as some detailed rules about washing after relieving oneself are among the edicts of Islam.
The bidet is indispensable in much of southern
Europe, perhaps thanks to Middle Eastern influence.
It’s easy to delight in the toilet as a reflection of culture, but that relationship is only straightforward in some cases. The famed Japanese toilets, with complex bidet switch systems and automatic moving parts, neatly epitomize the country’s mechanized hygiene. In the U.S., a penchant for neocolonial toilet aesthetics might reflect our ongoing interest in colonialism.
However, toilet quirks are often purely practical or merely inconsequential. In Germany, toilets that feature the “shit shelf”—a dry platform in the bowl where unmentionables land and stay until the toilet is flushed—became common because a meat-heavy diet made scat inspection a good idea until food-safety innovations in the last century. Traditional Chinese squat toilets resemble bedroom slippers, for no apparent reason.
What truly define toilet styles the world over are the practical goals of staying clean, healthy, and comfortable. Different cultures find different means to this same end. A little lack of worldliness and a touch of immaturity make it fun to scrutinize the variety, but it’s not a productive pastime. This message was at the heart of Corbusier/Jeanneret/Perriand’s 1937 toilet: The most avant-garde approach is to embrace the variety as a celebration of human ingenuity, and leave it at that.
Most people probably don’t know about the other WTO, the World Toilet Organization—a nonprofit established in 2001 and committed to improving toilet standards in the developing and developed worlds. Its priorities make little room for cultural nuances, and focus on finding environmentally responsible ways to dispose of human waste and provide toilets for impoverished parts of the world that have none. Last year the New York Times reported that adolescent girls in Africa are dropping out of schools because they have no toilets; earlier this year it reported that one school in Beirut has six toilets for a thousand people.
As the 21st century greets humanity with a host of new problems, perhaps it’s time for some new toilets. Taking modernism’s cosmopolitan outlook as a springboard for fresh ideas, design has much to offer; the WTO anxiously awaits.