Susan Welsh -- Interior Design, 7/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Imagine the scene: Local officials working on a regeneration plan are discussing a new public toilet for a parking lot. "I know!" says one. "Let's devote $590,000 to this toilet and make it a real architectural point of interest." Sounds like fiction, but that's more or less what happened in Gravesend, a dowdy commuter town 25 miles east of London.
The officials' forward-thinking decision had quite a lot to do with Richard Owers and John Davies of Plastik Architects, the young firm that got the job. (It was both their first public commission and their last as Plastik. In June, they merged with Nicholas Ray Associates to form NRAP.) At the time, Owers was working for a larger firm, Penoyre & Prasad, on Gravesend's overall regeneration plan. "Out of that came this little nodal point, which seemed to be a good place to put something, so I suggested that they consider a public toilet that could be almost a piece of public art," Owers explains. He adds that, when he left Penoyre & Prasad to join Plastik, the commission came through as something of a "leaving present."
Owers and Davies's building indeed resembles a public sculpture, one that just happens to have urinals inside it. From a distance, the monolithic 700-square-foot structure anchors the landscape and gives it a sense of place, as if to tell the observer that the disparate and frankly ugly surrounding elements—the parking lot, a boxy tower block, the backs of row houses, a huddled parade of storefronts—constitute an intentional composition, with Plastik's toilets as the redeeming focus.
The design's jumping-off point was the plot's limited size and triangular shape. "To fit everything in, we used the site right up to the full extent of the boundary," Davies says. Since heating wouldn't be required, Plastik went for the simplicity of solid concrete, also appealing for its sturdiness. "Public toilets are notorious for being destroyed by the public," he points out. "With a building like this—let's face it—there may be some problems with antisocial behavior and graffiti."
Seen from outside, the roof's three asymmetrical concrete slabs appear to float over the dark gray, ceramic-tiled exterior. That's because they slope upward from the center, where they're supported by interior walls. Beneath the roof's overhang, an angled clerestory enhances the buoyant effect. The architects originally proposed leaving the gap unglazed, but issues of vulnerability to intruders as well as what Davies terms "English modesty" called for glass.
Plastik positioned the four internal load-bearing walls not only to support the cantilevered roof but also to partition off the men's room, ladies' room, and attendants' stations, which share the space with two baby-changing rooms, a supply closet, and the vestibule. Where the roof planes meet above the latter, a skylight makes for a bright welcome. Surfaces are painted cheery yellow, tangerine orange, salmon pink, and terra-cotta red, and the absence of doors to the men's and ladies' areas renders the unusual layout all the more airy.
The design was short-listed for the 2008 RIBA National and International Awards and has already won a Loo of the Year Award—conferred by an entity called the British Toilet Association. Meanwhile, the toilets' appearance has earned press comparisons to "Darth Vader's spaceship," and the locals seem ambivalent about the building's merits. "On TV, they interviewed a couple of people who said, 'Well, you know, it's a bit strange-looking, not the kind of thing I like,'" Davies admits. "It's either made us slightly more famous or notorious in the area."
Directly opposite the entry, there's a mural of a bloblike man and woman pointing the way to their respective facilities. "Oh, I wondered what that meant!" one woman declared after blundering into the men's area. "That's the way the new design is," a female attendant replied with a shrug.