Thoughts on a Porcelain Throne

By He Yutian, Martel '15, Major in Architecture and Visual Arts, Minor in Anthropology

Upon conducting a comparative survey of various bathrooms at Rice University, a banal daily functional space that we are all too familiar with was defamiliarized and seen in a new light, allowing many intriguing insights to be drawn. The bathrooms of Herzstein Hall, the RMC, Anderson Hall, Rayzor Hall, and Martel College were selected as case studies, with their interior features carefully observed and recorded.                

All the bathrooms were housed in buildings that could be roughly categorized into older buildings constructed during Rice's initial conception a century ago, and newer buildings that were retrofitted as recently as just a couple of years ago. The age of the bathrooms was almost the strongest differentiating factor in the variety of materials, space organizations, uses and style present in the bathrooms surveyed – more so than the function of the building or the location of the building.           

The materials varied from bathroom to bathroom considerably. The RMC bathrooms had a distinct color palette of red, black, and while, with patterning ceramic wall tiles and bold red accents on walls with black framing on the large mirrors within, giving the bathrooms the most modern aesthetic out of all the bathrooms surveyed. The Rayzor Hall bathrooms also looked to be of a more recent, modern style, with both featuring tiled floors and sleek wood-veneer stall doors. There were even potted plants in the female bathrooms. So was the Martel quad single bathroom, which had basic simple tiles and white-washed walls. The most anachronistic bathrooms were the ones at Anderson, as the floors were made of terrazzo and the walls of marble, corresponding to an older style, but the bathroom stall doors were all made of steel and plastic. This is consistent with the fact the the stalls were renovated just recently in 2011. Herzstein Hall, on the other hand, had undeniably the oldest bathrooms, characterized by its distinct style of square sinks with double taps, high clerestory windows, and ornately carved door knobs.

One thing consistent throughout all the bathrooms is the binary division of each of them into the men's and women's bathrooms. Notably, the women's bathroom in Herzstein is significantly smaller than the men's, with much fewer stalls. This could possibly reflect how there were more men than women enrolled as students and employed as faculty members when the bathroom was built. Also, given so many design considerations that maximized efficiency, the gendered nature of bathrooms does not always correspond to functionality. For example, in Anderson Hall, the men's and women's bathrooms are on two separate floors despite there being both men and women on both floors, necessitating a trip up or down the stairs for many.

In the book “Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives: Sex, Gender and Archaeology” by Rosemary Joyce, it is said that “much of the the way we learn about how to be men and women in any society comes not through explicit discussions but through the inexplicit experience of a living in a world of things.” Indeed, the daily ritual of physically visiting a gender-assigned space reaffirms the dichotomy between the two genders, and subliminally re-enforces an individual's gender identity. In this way, bathrooms can be seen as one of the material factors in our lives that influences and dictates the performance of gender identities, and one that silently but not so subtly states that gender is binary, as if it were a functional fact. As a common space used daily by the general public of the university, bathrooms serve as powerful indicators of the prevailing social norm of gendered spatiality. But does it need to do so?

Looking at how the bathrooms at Rice have evolved over time, the shift from Herzstein Hall’s platform stalls and stepped urinals to the much more handicap-accessible bathrooms in all the newer bathrooms points to how meeting the needs of the handicapped have become a priority. This change in industry standards for bathrooms reveal a changing attitude towards meeting the needs of a particular group, by institutionalizing handicapped accessibility as a building requirement. The same can be said for the expansion of female bathrooms, or rather, having the same number of stalls for both male and female bathrooms in the newer bathrooms. More than just a functional result of changing university demographics, this change also points to the important trend of increased female enrollment and employment at the university. Hence, the gendered spatiality of current Rice bathrooms can similarly be challenged, firstly to acknowledge and serve the needs of individuals who might not necessarily identify consistently with either gender, and secondly to reflect the increasing ambivalence, even obsolescence, of gendered spaces.


Posted on March 24, 2015 .