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An Architectural Review of Restrooms

Restrooms are typically considered unappealing and purely utilitarian, often included in design as an afterthought.

Humans, as living creatures, have a biological need for such spaces and spend considerable time in them throughout their lives. Furthermore, most societies have tied restrooms and gender together, with gender being a social classifier. This implies that restrooms themselves are a form of social space. Biologically, humans need to expel waste. The result is that a restroom, at minimum, needs: a place to deposit excreta; a system to expel it from the occupied space; ventilation; and measures that promote human sanitation.

Concurrent with the biological burdens of the body are the psychological and social burdens carried into a restroom. There are two concepts that need to be addressed to provide one with relief from these. The first is “rest.” Whether attempting to retreat from intense physical labor, emotional distress, or social interaction, most urban cultures have turned to the modern “rest”room as a place of refuge, and central to this idea is water. Not all spaces where humans relieve themselves have water. For example, a traditional outhouse is, in essence, a hole dug into the earth encased by a wooden stall. This space is not meant to be refreshing but to simply perform its function – sanitation aside. Water refreshes, heals, cleans, and is the basis for all life on earth. When looking for respite, we often seek many of the properties that water has to offer. Without delving into the centuries of philosophical exploration regarding its nature, it suffices to say that, when talking about a restroom and the idea of refuge, access to water is essential.

The second concept is privacy and safety, realized through the separation of individuals.

Only urinals are explicitly tied to sex. Toilets are the other modern tool for managing human biological waste, and they accommodate every body type. As such, the argument for the separation of individuals in restrooms is not a biological one but a social one.

While the separation of people by sex has been enforced by religious architecture and traditions for centuries, within the United States, the policy separating people by gender within the public “bathroom” was introduced in the nineteenth century under the guise of minimizing sexual harassment. Gender separation had not been the legal norm prior to this, and that is because “bathrooms” used to be operated one at a time due to sanitary limitations – thus making separation unnecessary. This law requiring separate facilities for men and women, however, was not restricted to the restroom; it was an item in a list of separatist policies that arose out of the fear of integrating the “domestic woman” into public life, appearing alongside separate train cars for women and separate reading rooms within the public library. Outside of the US, in Scotland, where a similar law was passed, the reinforcing of women's place as being “at home” was much more blatant: while all pre-existing restrooms became men-only, it was not until forty years later that governments started, in earnest, enforcing the construction of women-only facilities to match.

The result of these nineteenth-century policies is that we divide ourselves by gender within the restroom to this day. Furthermore, regardless of gender, one is indeed in a vulnerable state when using the restroom and can be taken advantage of. Consequently, the US restroom has relief spaces that are visually separated for privacy and physically separated for security, with the most common example being the restroom stall.

Security aside, these spaces should also be soundproofed – to some degree – to alleviate social pressures. Individuals should feel confident to satisfy their needs freely and fully.

Now, I depart from the facts and enter into my opinions and what the restroom can be.

When people go to a fair or festival or some other public outdoor event, their space of relief is most likely an evolution of the outhouse typology: a porta-potty. Everyone gathers outside in front of the portables, regardless of sex, size, or age. When one becomes available, a person enters it and closes the door. Porta-potties are often lined in a row, so one could argue they are nothing more than a glorified stall. The walls are floor-to-ceiling, with a door that locks and a toilet that fits every body type. Sometimes there is a sink inside, but otherwise, communal sinks can be found outside.

If this organization could be implemented indoors, we could have a more efficient, safe, single public restroom for everyone. Imagine this: You enter the public restroom with your family. On one wall, there is a wide shared sink with many faucets. You continue past the sink into a common room with a wall of many doors, each one being an entrance to a private, floor-to-ceiling stall. Your daughter doesn’t need to use the restroom, so she sits on the waiting bench in the common room. Your husband walks down to the end of the hall and steps into a side room to use the urinals. You take your toddler to use one of the private stalls, then take him to sit in the common room with your husband and daughter as they wait for you. All this time, in this public place, your family stayed close - rather than being divided by gender or sex.

Below are some diagrams and images of this ideal restroom. Taken from a theoretical art museum project of mine, I sought to make the restroom the social heart and personal refuge of an otherwise attention-grabbing, movement-oriented experience.

Image 1: Ground Floor

Part of the ground floor of the theoretical museum. The sole restroom serving the galleries and theater lies at its center, allowing visitors to collect themselves at both the beginning and end of their journey if they choose.

Image 2: Floor Plan

Image 3: Vertical Cut Diagram

Images 4 - 7: Sketches of the Restroom

Given that this space has been a culturally charged subject for centuries, why does a reimagining of the public restroom need to happen? Haven’t we settled, if not on an ideal norm, then on an acceptable one that works for everyone? As mentioned earlier, US “bathrooms” divide people based on gender in the name of mitigating sexual harassment within them; however, this reasoning is flawed because it conveniently ignores the fact that people are still capable of same-sex violence against each other. Given this ignorance, if the separation of genders is seen as a cure-all for harassment, then designers would be inclined to invest as little as possible into materials and structure past the restroom door, resulting in cheaply built and unsafe restroom layouts. Furthermore, separating people at all on the basis of gender can be especially detrimental to those who do not easily identify with their nation’s traditional sex-gender binary. Within the United States, this cultural tension often manifests in harmful ways, permeating our political discourse. As such, the typical modern restroom and the separation of genders should not be considered ideal.

Rather, our conversation has become so nuanced that it completely misses the solution to the very real question of safety: if we all get along well outside the restroom, but suddenly feel unsafe inside the restroom, then the problem isn’t us - it is how we designed the space.

To conclude this design-driven and social analysis of the restroom, a familiar restructuring of public stalls, sinks, and the addition of a common space in a restroom would embody the principles of rest, safety, and privacy to accommodate both families and individuals. Floor-to-ceiling walls and doors for each stall provide one with more separation than they would typically expect in a restroom designed for a single sex, further alleviating the concern of safety. This is the sort of inclusivity that many transgender people seek. A restroom that serves as a refuge where all feel welcome ensures that no one is excluded in a place where they come for relief. //

Alejandro R. Ruck Vega


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