A Plunge Into US Restrooms—And Why They Need A Serious Structural Rethink
Updated: Nov 15, 2021
At the risk of starting this post like a Jerry Seinfeld gag, I must ask: what’s the deal with public restrooms in this country? Namely, but not limited to, those inside major air and ground transport hubs. These facilities have been conceived with some major, major design flaws that just must be addressed if the USA is to ever be free of the weird and unnerving experience of using a public toilet.
For many of those who travel to this country for business or pleasure, the airport restroom is literally the first noteworthy experience on American soil. But it shouldn’t be—there’s no reason to suspect that these amenities would be any different to, say, British toilets. Y’know, all but one urinal out of service (indicated by swathes of neon yellow and black tape) and a weird communal fountain hand wash station in the middle of the room.
Imagine the situation: you’re off the plane and you’re feeling a little sour. You’ve survived the last 10 hours on a noxious concoction of airplane food, alcohol and pretzels, so you need a moment to yourself to reevaluate the contents of your stomach.
Upon sitting down, you’ll notice—hopefully—that the water in the bowl is mere millimeters away from the section of your body that’s furthest into the loo. And it’s shallow. Like it’s been designed specifically to offer a watery surprise to anyone who started their stomach exodus without noticing this particular quirk. It’s not as if knowing means you’ll really be able to do much about it, mind, it’s just good to know the upward cascade is coming.
The horror doesn’t end there, though. Once you’ve come to terms with the fact that this will not be the most comfortable touchdown of the day, you then start to cast your eyes around the cubicle. Only to find that there’s barely any cubicle to speak of.
When stood, the walls start at about your knees, and there are penny-sized gaps both sides of the door. If you dare to look down to either side of you, you’ll get very familiar with the legs belonging to the person grunting in the stall beside you. You should not be able to do that.
And if you’re really lucky, you’ll make eye contact with someone mistakenly trying to open your stall. (When that happens, it’s customary to throw them a wink to indicate that you will soon be vacating the booth.)
The wall-to-no-wall ratio is even more dire in many bars and stores. There’s no need to try and make eye contact through the door slits—you can just casually peer over the top to find out how long the current loo dweller is going to take. (In this situation it’s considered polite to offer a positive critique of their toilet techniques, even if you think they’re a crappy crapper.)
This Slate article explains that the shoddy cubicle design has been in effect for over 100 years. World-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright helped popularize it in one of his less architecturally-savvy moments—and then once a patent was established in 1918, it was game over for shy shitters across the country.
Whereas the design was originally intended to facilitate cleaning—as well as help offset any issues arising from uneven flooring—modern champions of the half-a-job cubicle claim that it helps curb the amount of sex and drugs in restrooms. Unfortunately they have yet to find a way to tackle rock n roll, which remains rampant in facilities across the States.
In a wonderfully satisfying full circle, the other popular theory comes from Seinfeld—stall doors don’t go all the way to the floor so you can check to see they are occupied. A sound idea, but George doesn’t buy it.
It’s a shame that early pioneers of US public bathrooms didn’t care much for the end user. And in a country that gets a bit prickly when you try to encourage too much positive change, I think I’ll have the privilege of catching a few more wandering eyes—outside bathroom stalls across the land—for years to come.