Washroom quirks of the world -in association with BTA
August 1st 2004
When visiting an away-from-home washroom we usually know roughly what to expect inside. But some washroom providers seem to go out of their way to delight, surprise or confuse their customers using sumptuous fittings or quirky murals and a few practical jokes thrown in for good measure. SCA Hygiene Products Pete Broom looks at some of the most unusual washrooms around the world
Visiting a washroom is a routine experience that no-one really expects to enjoy. But providers of washroom hygiene products such as ourselves know the impact that a well-equipped, smart washroom can have. An upmarket washroom will impress its users and leave them with a good feeling about the hotel, restaurant or office where they found it. Similarly a dirty, poorly-equipped washroom can considerably lower their opinion of a venue. But for some washroom providers it is no longer sufficient to equip a loo to be functional, smart or even luxurious. For them it has become a point of honour to ensure that the loo is a major talking point and perhaps even the highlight of the customers visit.
Take for instance the loos in New Yorks fashionable Bar 89. At first glance these seem to be fairly utilitarian in appearance. In fact they closely resemble telephone kiosks in that they are unisex, situated in full view of the public and have walls that are totally see-through. Unknowing customers are understandably reluctant to use these loos but they need not fear. As soon as a cubicle door is locked, the transparent walls fog up Big Brother-style and the facilities become reassuringly private. These practical joke washrooms are in fashion in the US and regular users seem to enjoy watching other peoples embarrassment as they try to figure out how to use them. Another example is a Thai-Vietnamese restaurant in New York called Peep which allows washroom visitors to see into the restaurant while using the loo. This gives them the uncomfortable feeling that they are being watched but the diners who appear to be staring in at them are in fact watching erotic art films being projected on the other side of the one-way mirrored glass. Also in New York are the bewildering washrooms of WD-50 on the Lower East Side which at first glance consist of a sink in a communal room. On closer inspection, patrons spot the secret doors hidden in the panelling which lead to a unisex washroom. Even the cubicles themselves present a challenge since flushing is achieved by touching a hard-to-spot metal panel incorporated into the wall.
Outside the US, public washrooms tend to be much more practical and conservative. It would be difficult to build an amusing or quirky experience into the use of the traditional squat loo found throughout Europe and Asia, for example. However, some providers have done so by default. For example the management of the train system that operates between Delhi and Agra have installed a loo that is simply a hole in the bottom of the train, forcing men to aim at a moving target and women to crouch on the floor of a rattling carriage while watching the world go by from an unusual perspective.
At the other end of the scale are the high-tech, squeaky-clean loos that can be found in places such as Germany, Austria and Japan. Self-cleaning toilets with spinning seat and mechanical cleaning arm are fairly common here, and Japan goes one step further with its electronic toilets that come complete with heated seat and integral bidet. The latter refinement appears ingenious to the cognoscenti but bewildering in the extreme for everyone else especially if they are unable to switch off the water jets and end up with a wet face after turning round to inspect the plumbing.
Waterfall loos are becoming more widespread and are always popular. One of the original and most famous of these is at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo on the road between Los Angeles and San Fransisco. The urinal in the Gents of this hotel consists of a backdrop of real rock and a waterfall that is activated when a beam of light is broken. This novelty loo has become a landmark over the years and even female guests crowd in to have a look. At least two tour buses arrive at the Madonna Inn every day for a pit stop and famous visitors to the loos include George Burns, John Wayne and Monica Lewinsky.
A motion-activated waterfall is also a feature of the Gents urinal on the Royal Caribbean cruise liner Voyager of the Seas. The flow begins as soon as the plant-covered wall is approached and men can relieve themselves to the sound of tinkling water while looking out onto an ocean vista 11 stories below.
Loos-with-a-view can be found all over the world. They include the Ladies at the rooftop bar of the Hotel Torni in Helsinki which offers a panoramic view of the city, while women using the toilets on the top floor of the Magna Plaza shopping mall in Amsterdam can enjoy a view from the sink that inspires awe in some and vertigo in others.
Sometimes unusual loos are found in the least likely places. Busy airport loos cater for a high throughput of travellers and are usually the most functional of washrooms. Why, then, has the management of Amsterdams Schiphol Airport seen fit to install a seaside-themed loo in the airside Ladies? This has beach scenes painted all over the walls; a red-and-white striped mock lighthouse and a white picket fence, and visitors are soothed by the sounds of seagulls calling and waves breaking onto a far-off shore.
Our own toilets in Britain tend to be fairly conservative by contrast, according to director of the British Toilet Association Richard Chisnell. However, he has come across a few unusual washrooms during his annual hunt to find the Loo of the Year. In Hull there is a public toilet near the old pier where the original Victorian basin which is probably now priceless is still in use, he said. Then there is a nightclub in Nottingham with TV screens in the urinals which allow you to pee on your favourite politician.
One of the reasons why the US is so far ahead of Europe on the whacky loo front is the existence of a website asking American citizens to nominate their favourite public loo. Previous winners have included the opulent Ladies at the Mississippi Casino which cost a million dollars to create, and the Kohler Arts Center restroom which takes The Social History of Architecture as its rather pretentious theme. Here you can powder your nose among the classical architecture of Rome and amidst the Egyptian Pyramids. Maybe we in Britain will start to follow suit and a wave of weird and wonderful washrooms will open all over the country. Relieving oneself may well become a lot more enjoyable in the future.
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