(This is a companion piece to something I wrote for the Issue 37 of The Lifted Brow, which is focused more exclusively on aesthetics and the psycho-physiological elements of toileting. I encourage readers to order a copy or subscribe to this fantastic magazine.)
The toilet block at Alexandria Park is less than one kilometre from my house. Like many people in the area, I use the park regularly. It is a beacon of green space with mature Moreton Bay Figs, poplars and plane trees; a large picketed oval, basketball and tennis courts; generous informal recreational lawns; shelters, benches, bubblers, barbecues and some well made memorial gateways.
The bunker-like, redbrick toilet block already made a reasonably mean impression. This has been magnified hugely since seeing the chilling TV documentary “Deep Water: The Real Story”, directed by Rick Feneley. The toilet was the location of one of the many gay bashings that took place in the 80s and 90s. A group of thugs called a phone number scrawled on the toilet wall and lured Richard Johnson to the site, where he was bashed to death. Watching the documentary, I was shocked by the nearness in space and time of this prejudice inspired violence, and then grateful at how lucky I am to find this is shocking.
For a long time there was no toilet accessible to the general public in the park. The gender specific entrances are blocked by the tennis court fences. The courts require a booking to use and the gates are locked by magnets. On many occasions I had to run up to the nearby McDonald’s on Botany Rd to relieve myself. Providing no personal amenity, the toilet seemed more a tomb or sarcophagus, a grim memorial to Johnson’s tragic murder and many others like it.
Now the council has provided a unisex toilet in the back part of the block, with helpful guide to the nearest other toilets in the region, at Waterloo (12min) and Erskineville (7min) ovals. However, the Ladies and Gents entrances on the other side remain blocked by the fences.
The exact reasons for this inaccessibility remain obscure to me: is it because of the idea that public toilets will become the sites for deviant behaviour? Was it a snap response associated with Johnson’s death which is yet to be rethought? Is it to reduce the maintenance load of council staff? Or to give the users of the sporting facilities as more reliably pleasant space for changing and refreshing themselves?
Either way, this particular toilet block opens onto a still resonant hidden history, which both contrasts and informs the cultural and atmospheric experience of public toilets in Sydney and other cities like it.
Spending a bit of time in the worlds of Alan Hollinghurst’s novels has allowed me to experience some of the excitement and apprehension associated with cruising and public toilets by proxy. The sense of mystique that comes from secrecy is one of the small charities afforded to communities whose basic fulfillments are interpreted as deviant in the eyes of the law. This is the very different side of the same coin that tells of Johnson’s senseless murder.
Hollinghurst is among the most architecturally sensitive and informed novelists writing today. While character and plot are remain the key drivers in his fiction, the mood and detail of specific spaces are an essential part of what gives his writing its sense of distinctiveness. The key events and deeper meaning of his work often involve buildings as foundational, atmospheric elements.
Public toilets and the practice of cruising or “cottaging”, as it is known in the UK, play an particularly important if peripheral role in The Spell and The Swimming Pool Library. Encounters in these dark, visceral, hedonic or spiritual spaces set the paradigm for other spaces (nightclubs, mausolea and gymnasia) and the complicated relationships between the public and private that are an enduring concern in his works and a meta-theme of the novel in general.
In The Spell Hollinghurst places the reader in a public toilet in Clapham Common, where Robin, one of the book’s four central characters follows a stranger, Justin, who then becomes his lover:
He saw the angled wicker fences that screened the entry to the public toilets, the Ladies’ was closed up with barbed wire, but from the Men’s, by some benign perseverance or dreamlike oversight, the hiss of the flush was heard, and the metal door swung open to the bright protesting arpeggios of an old spring. (32)
Robin revels in the “the thrilling squalor of it” (33) and “the building’s reminiscence of his own teens and their successes—the smells of linseed and creosote and changing-room staleness” (33).
Internet searches reveal a number of toilets on and around Clapham Common, one is a cottage-like structure at the northern end, To Let in 2014, and, like a number of other public toilets in London, tipped to be transformed into a cafe, bar or residence. This is indeed what appears to have happened to the toilets at the far north eastern fringe. The underground part of structure is Wine and Charcuterie and the above ground part is Joe Public, a pizza focused cafe.
However, the more likely candidate seems to be a now potentially demolished pavilion which caught fire in 2014. In The Spell Hollinghurst describes the structure as a “low wooden building, like a broken-down cricket-pavilion, with a boarded-up stall that still advertised Teas and Ice Cream” (32), which seems to match photographs of the partially burnt building.
It is a delicious irony that Londoners can now enjoy their Stilton, parma ham and imported sherry in a space which shares some of the aesthetic attributes (tiled walls, exposed piping, indicative signage, partitioned stalls, dim lighting), yet free from the “thrilling squalor” Hollinghurst attributes to Robin’s cottaging enterprises on the common.
It is also a sign of the times that previously neglected, rudimentary spaces are viewed as a valuable resource for the delivery of leisure-oriented services or as real estate. Access to pleasure in cities like London is increasingly contingent on the power of the pound. Sydney is not there yet, we are still knocking down our old loos. We can hardly be too far behind, with industrial spaces becoming apartments, restaurants, bars and cafes at a pace that sees new concepts for luxury and leisure developed and discarded as though the city were a newsfeed.
Even Ilya Kabakov’s art installation, The Toilet, at documenta festival in Kassel in 1992, which features a living room in a public toilet block, fails to give an interpretation of the contemporary that speaks as forcefully as the London lavatory metamorphoses.
The Swimming Pool Library begins with the narrator trying to tempt an “Arab boy” into the public toilets in Kensington gardens. Hollinghurst sets up the scene by describing the dynamic sense of openness and enclosure afforded by the deciduous trees in the park “that odd inside-outside logic was evolving whereby the Park, just at the time it becomes hot and popular, shuts itself off from the outside world of buildings and traffic with the shady density of its foliage”. Inside, the toilet is a notably hygienic space, albeit filled with human figures that the narrator is both attracted to and repulsed by:
I went down the tiled steps between the tiled walls, and a hygienic, surprisingly sweet smell surrounded me. It was all very clear, and at several of the stalls and the burnished copper pipes (to which someone must attach all their pride), men were standing, raincoats shrouding from the innocent visitor or the suspicious policemen their hour-long footlings.
Instead of a chance encounter with his Arab boy the narrator ends up saving the life of Charles Nantwich, an elderly aristocrat who has a heart attack in the park outside after first wandering into the loos.
In both books Hollinghurst evokes the peculiar contrast between the green expanse of the common or park and the dimmer interior spaces where sexual fantasies lead. In both there is also a sense of the chance encounter and the perhaps now seemingly improvised connections—in comparison with dating apps—which particular spaces afford.
Red brick toilet blocks like the one at Alexandria Park will increasingly be a thing of the past in Sydney. In places like Prince Alfred Park, the old gents redbrick toilet block at the northern end was demolished due to public safety concerns. The replacement is part of the architecturally designed pool, a subtle deterrent for those more content in less salubrious dwellings.
At Marks Park in Bondi (near the site of another infamous gay bashing) the old block has been “recycled” by Sam Crawford Architects and transformed into a far more appealing structure which makes use of the glorious natural amenity, with expansive ocean views to the south all the way to Maroubra Beach while you wash your hands. Similar architecturally designed blocks exist throughout the eastern suburbs: at Tamarama (Lahz Nimmo Architects), North Bondi (Sam Crawford), throughout Centennial Park (Lahz Nimmo Architects) and at Cook Park in San Souci (Fox Johnson). A new block has just gone in on the coastal walk between South Steyne and Shelly Beach in Manly.
The same fate awaits the derelict but stunningly located block on the north Maroubra headland, thankfully captured by Jesse Adams Stein before the builders get their hands on it.
The large, open roofed toilets attached to the Bronte Surf Club, the far less pleasant block at the southern end of the beach and the block at South Bondi are among the last of a quickly disappearing style on this much frequented stretch of coast.
One example in Glebe suggests redbrick block might not be a thing of the past. Designed by Stanic Harding architects and located in Foley Park, the loo won the Robert Woodward Award in 2014 for Small Projects. It features a subdued combination of dark redbrick and wood (ironbark) screen, like the examples at North Bondi, Marks Park and Tamarama,
On the whole there seems little to lament about the upgrade of these buildings. It’s great to have sensitively designed, publicly accessible amenities that make the most of the iconic natural landscape of the city. At least they’re not all becoming popup Bondi Icebergs Dining Room and Bars. Compared to the stories you hear about London our various local councils in Sydney seem to be doing a pretty good job.
Free from the baggage of tradition that dictates the design of much residential housing, there’s even a sense that these structures that could increasingly inform future living spaces: a profound sense of openness, with central living areas that encourage circulation, combined with modest spaces for private activities in opposing wings of the building.
While there are continuing calls for better design and a greater abundance of public toilets in Australian cities, the developments signalled in Sydney’s more glamorous suburbs seem headed in headed in the right direction. Lets hope the sentiment of generosity informs the design and accessibility of other urgently spaces of public amenity throughout the city.