I’ve been walking all over suburbia looking for something—anything—with a pulse. Sure, I’ve found stuff, on which I shall report at a later date. But you know what? On more than one occasion I’ve been caught short and had to duck into a boozer or big shop, pretending to be a punter and afraid of getting found out. On a trip down Sandringham Road, the most residential of Auckland City’s arterial factory lines, the need was most pressing and as I came to the colourful enclave of village shops toward the top of the road, I was double happy to find not one, but two public conveniences.
Tragically the Art Deco one, built in 1930 and still standing proudly beautiful, was boarded up so I had to duck into shiny new one, supposedly offering me a better toileting experience. Now I don’t know about you, but I want my public toilets to be secure and built like a proverbial brick. What I don’t want is flimsy metal gadget shacks with household appliance sounding names like the Únisex Exeloo.
Those big, round, red and green flashing buttons give me the heebie jeebies. I have a severe distrust that the glowing red “to lock” button has not in fact given me privacy, but activated a 6ft high image of me on the street side of the lav, and passers-by are now flocking round to laugh at my gullibility. Ventilation grilling at the top of the unit stresses me more. Is there a TV news crew clambering up a ladder to film me? Still, needs must be met and enter I do. Quick I am. Though the walls are metal, they might as well be paper for all the distance I feel between me and the street.
These “self-managing” lavatories, plaguing modern urban space—thanks to global toilet confectionaries like Exeloo—are depriving us of the wonderful public toilets already here. In his groundbreaking New York City investigation into what makes a successful urban space, William H Whyte identified public toilets as essential. More importantly, he also highlighted the importance of adapting (not trashing and replacing) historic buildings for new public uses. The old tram shelter and now toilet on Mount Eden Road—providing relief since 1929—is one example where Auckland’s done this rather well.
The Sandringham road Art Deco toilet was built in the heyday of duel-gender public toilets. Between then and the city’s first public utility in 1890, men had far greater options. Women it was thought would be serviced by the department stores and tea rooms they frequented, and as one wanders around downtown Auckland, you have to wonder whether that sort of mentality is guiding current policy. In a similar study to Whyte, Auckland University Masters student’s found only one public loo in the waterfront area, and if the Wynyard Quarter project wants to attract visitors it would do well to take heed of Whyte and the Masters students’ findings.
It’s one thing being an out-of-towner or a cruise ship tourist, just bemoaning the lack, but the city-dweller will look at the abandoned or decrepit examples lurking in the shadows or hiding in the backstreets (yes that’s you Durham Street West loo) and think what shining examples of historic building adaptations these could still be. The saddest example of this neglect, that could so enhance the public’s journey from Queen Street to the new Auckland Art Gallery, is the underground Wellesley street toilet. Once staffed and kept pristine with fresh flowers by a little old lady, the entrance is now a locked eye-sore.
Perhaps fittingly, it is in the Rugby World Cup mecca of Kingsland where the glimmer of promise lies. Here lies a wonderful amalgamation of old and new. In between the upgraded train platforms and village hub, the quality workmanship in the tiles and sturdiness of the brick walls are enhanced by metal push-button concessions. Other highlights include native birds on painted tiles at the Dominion road shops’ bogs, changing facilities at the Narrowneck John, and while an Ellerslie public loo might be rated on a male cruising website, none of the older dunnies I visited brought to mind the kind of dubious individual that would put grandma off her cornflakes.
Instead we’re left with occasional identikit metal tents. And if you’re going to litter the streets with this off-the- shelf style, at least have a go at livening things up, like what they’ve done with Onehunga’s De Loo. This utilitarian lavatory is wrapped in an art nouveau style wrought iron tree of life sculpture that instantly injects individuality and an aesthetic nod to the surrounding building. Or there’s the Mount Eden shops’ bog, graced with a colourful mosaic done by local school children.
Heritage buildings are so often in private hands. We can’t afford to let the public ones go down the toilet.