Bursting for a change - The Tokyo Toilet Project

Blog — 01 Jul 2024

My last blog discussed the state of London’s streets and public services which compare unfavourably to cities like Singapore, Hong Kong and Taipei. Prior to spending a week in Tokyo for the set up and opening of the Tokyo Gendai art fair (5 - 7 July 2024), I did some homework by watching Perfect Days, Wim Wenders recent film that follows the day to day routine of Hirayama. He is a middle aged and uncommunicative man who lives alone in a life ordered by routine. Hirayama is a cleaner, responsible for the upkeep of some of Tokyo’s recently built and architecturally designed public toilets created by the Tokyo Toilet Project.

I happen to be staying in Shibuya, the area where the Tokyo Toilet Project is centred, so I spent a slightly surreal day visiting some of them. There are 17 new facilities commissioned by the Nippon Foundation and designed by globally renowned architects. In comparison, London has very few public conveniences, the network of Victorian and Edwardian ones has been dismantled in the last thirty or so years and replaced with some concrete pods and more recently revolting open plastic urinals. Once again, the question “what happened to civic pride” in our city is brought sharply into focus by what is happening elsewhere in the world.

The free-to-use toilet buildings in Tokyo are modest in scale but all are architecturally ambitious. There seems to be an understanding that if the public realm is graced with objects of beauty the users will respect them. This is the tacit relationship that underpins a civilized urban society.

Architecturally the buildings vary dramatically in style and form, some are diaphanous and light others heavy and solid. Shigeru Ban’s colourful transparent rooms that use Priva-Lite technology to flick the walls to opaque as the door is locked seem to attract the most attention from passers-by and visitors. But all of them have merit, and they all seem to be well looked after and clean.

Shigeru Ban, Yoyogi Fukamachi Mini Park
Wonder Wall by Masamichi Katayama, Ebisu Park

Wonderwall use highly textured shuttered concrete to great effect and the red steel of Nao Tamara’s design were particularly impressive. Toyo Ito’s cluster of pods is a good example of how these little buildings deal with their unique context. Tadao Ando has designed a circular inverted conical structure that could be easily mass produced, perhaps why it seems the least quirky and inventive of them all.

Nao Tamara, Higashi Sanchome
Toyo Ito, Yoyogi-Hachiman

This project has raised the status of public toilets beyond that of utility to things of beauty, which makes one wonder, would a similar project work in London?

Fumihiki Maki, Ebisu East Park
Kashiwa Sato, Ebisu Station, West Exit

The London Society recently wrote about the lack of public toilets in London, 'We need to talk about toilets' and are calling for input into this serious public health issue.