Everybody poops. This was the case long before the landmark 1977 Japanese children’s book confronted this truth, establishing the toilet as an essential component to modern architecture.
And thus, for this “Fundamentals” edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale, Rem Koolhaas has devoted an entire gallery in the Giardini’s central pavilion to the history of the throne, tracing its path to modernization from the undateable Japanese squat toilet, to the ornate splendor of an 1895 Austrian Ditmar ceramic urinal, on through to the 2013 Japanese sensor- and smartphone-operated deodorizer-soundsystem-nightlight-receptacle Inax Satis Washlet. (The Japanese, it seems, had long ago conquered the art of evacuation.)
While V&A curator Kieran Long accuses Koolhaas of “taking the piss,” (badump-ching!), Koolhaas argues that “No architectural treatise declares the toilet as the primordial element of architecture, but it might be the ultimate one.” Truly, there’s no piece of architecture you’ve even been closer to. As its design conformed to ever-changing social constructs — the ways that we have considered personal hygiene, privacy, the universal right to sanitation, and our own bodily functions — let’s take a look at the stylistic evolution of the most important seat in the house.
Traditional squat toilet, Japan, year unknown
Truly exemplary of Koolhaas’s “back to basics," “Fundamentals” theme, it offers the bare essentials: a hole in the ground.
Chariot latrine at Baths of Caracalla, Rome, ca. 100-200 A.D.
There was a point during the Roman Empire where evacuation was an a-okay, even celebratory, group activity for you and your friends, that took place on a single bench punctuated with openings. This single-serving seat marks the Romans’ departure from the bathroom as a communal venue, birthing the concept of the personal throne.
Valve closet, England, ca. 1822
The troubled design, first patented in 1775 with this particular model manufactured by John Bolding and Sons in the 19th century, may have broken easily, frozen in outhouses, and most frightening of all, had a very weak flush, but was a favorite among wealthy English homes of its time.
Urinal Vineta, Austria, 1895
Although the original owner of this exquisitely executed commission from the Ditmara ceramics factory work of art is unknown, it was most likely someone fancy.
Unitas Toilet, England, 1898
The groundbreaking design by English potter Twyfords ushered in the modern toilet: it was the first to be made of porcelain, fixed to the floor, and attached to plumbing.
Blue Diversion Toilet, Switzerland, 2011
In contrast to the Victorian era, proper sanitation is no longer a luxury of the wealthy these days, although wealth — along with water and sewage facilities — can be scarce in certain regions around the globe. High on humanitarian potential, the Eawag- and EOOS-designed commode has a built-in handwashing station that diverts sink water away from the human waste, which is also separated between solid from liquid; the back wall contains a compact recovery system that treats and recycles the reusable water on-site. In 2011, it won the Bill and Melinda Gates “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.”
Inax Satis Washlet, Japan, 2013
The washlet represents the height of our gadget-obsessed age, combining (almost) every imaginable function into a single device. There’s an ion generator that simulates the freshness of air one would find near a waterfall, a pressure-controlled water nozzle, music, and more, all of which sync to a smartphone app.
photos by Janelle Zara