At An Exhibit In Kansas City, Designers Begin Solving America’s Public Bathroom Problem
Everybody pees, but who spends time thinking about it?
Anyone who plans their outings in consideration of public restroom locations thinks about it. Wheelchair users, pregnant women, or parents of small children, for instance. And, of course, trans and gender noncomforming folks who are continually warned by policymakers to unzip it only in the bathroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificates.
If you’ve never been in one of these categories, you probably don’t give peeing a second thought. If you are in one of these categories, you might agree with Brooklyn landscape designer Ben Barsotti Scott that the spaces we move through inform how we think of ourselves as part, or not part, of the world around us.
Scott, a Kansas City native, and landscape designer Julie Shapiro, who lives in Boston, became friends when they were in grad school at the University of Virginia. As a formal way to examine how the design and placement of public restrooms affect society, they formed a design research and writing collective called Bad Little Brother.
The name comes from their nickname for the iPhone’s fourth monkey emoji. His siblings are see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil.
“Then there’s one more little monkey that’s just looking over his shoulder,” Shapiro says, “and he looks like he’s kind of up for anything.”
Bad Little Brother’s debut exhibition, “Unrestrooms, an unfinished survey of gender and public space,” opening on Friday at Front/Space, includes mostly playful work by six designers, some of whom are students.
Scott wants to be clear that the show is not comprised of proposed solutions to toilet politics, but rather a thoughtful and often light-hearted response.
When the idea of “Wait, we should be able to pee” became commonplace, design researchers quickly translated that into “Where’s the actual need for this?” says Shapiro.
Wanting to connect the question of need with an actual approach to design, they put out a call for submissions, and designers from all over the country responded.
Of the six they selected, one was by a design collective from the University of Waterloo that goes by Super/Typical who had already built and installed their “Porta-party” at a festival in Toronto.
The idea of “Porta-party,” Scott says, is to extend the festival’s fun into the designated bathroom area so toilet use is just another activity.
“A lot of ethos in the show is about taking away stigma or the hidden nature of toilets and bathrooms and affirming the importance of these facilities in our lives and not denying them,” Shapiro says. “It sounds obvious, but they tend to be hidden, they tend to be minimal, they tend to be just designed as the bare necessity for a certain type of body.”
Scott says the exhibition will include a reading room. One idea that caught his attention was a question he attributes to transgender actress Laverne Cox: “Who has the right to be visible in a public space and for how long?”
That is, people who must give a lot of thought to peeing can’t afford to spend as long, say, at the Country Club Plaza — which, in late 2017, closed the visitor center that offered the only public restrooms — as those who are willing and able to duck behind a Dumpster.
Kathleen Adams, a New York-based designer, tackles the idea of who can pee where in her work “The Rules of the City,” which maps urination violations against residential density and Starbucks locations.
“Kathleen was, through this map, making a very cheeky assertion that she’s found support for in contemporary literature: that Starbucks has become the public restroom of the city,” Scott says. “She uses that to call out the political problem of displacing something that was previously a public good onto the private sphere.”
And, of course, Starbucks reserves the right to restrict restroom access to paying customers.
On another map, Adams suggests locations of automated public toilets (ATPs), of which only three exist in New York City. New ATPs would largely benefit people who need a toilet on a different time scale than the general population — people such as taxi drivers, who have an unusually high rate of urinary tract infections.
But the city says ATPs in those spots would violate zoning laws, so, for the time being, Adams’ ideas will remain unrealized.
Adams’ work, Shapiro says, “gets at the huge barrier of infrastructure and code and zoning that makes it hard to change these systems or how many bathrooms there can be.”
That sounds serious, but with their show, Shapiro and Scott are taking the attitude of that fourth monkey emoji.
“He’s not giving you a moral lesson,” Shapiro says. “He’s the bad little brother.” And now, so are they.
“Unrestrooms” opens from 6–9 p.m. on Friday, March 2, at Front/Space, 217 W. 18th St., Kansas City, MO 64108, 816-200-0472. The show runs by appointment through March 31. Bad Little Brother and the Kansas City Center for Inclusion present a panel discussion with architects, activists, and advocates to discuss all-gender restroom design as well as restroom rights among trans, gender non-conforming, and intersex users from 1-2:30 p.m., Saturday, March 31, at 3911 Main, Kansas City, MO 64111.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated Scott and Shapiro's titles. They are landscape designers.