Every year around Thanksgiving, the question “what are you most thankful for?” inevitably comes up. Years ago, while having a discussion about the architecture of the Middle Ages, I realized that I can actually pinpoint that elusive be-all, end-all answer to what I am most thankful for: indoor plumbing.
As architects, we spend a surprising amount of time talking about and designing toilet rooms. They can either be utilitarian or works of art or something in between. One of the most popular rooms of Rem Koolhaas' "Elements of Architecture" exhibit at the 2014 Venice Biennale was dedicated to the history of the toilet. From the history graph featured, you can see the dip in toilet design that was the Middle Ages.
Still, you may be asking yourself why an architect would find him or herself so thankful for indoor plumbing. Sure, it is not as touchy-feely as the other Thanksgiving staple responses such as “my health” or “our prosperity” but I would argue that indoor plumbing made all of those possible. Perhaps this is hard to see from the vantage of living in a country where nearly 100% of our population lives with improved sanitation, but that is not the case globally.
According to the literature from the United Nations’ World Toilet Day, a third of the global population (2.5 billion people) does not have access to adequate sanitation and 1 billion people do not have access to any toilet. The negative effects of improper sanitation and hygiene impact not only health, but also education, economic productivity and safety.
Last week, I stumbled across the My Toilet exhibit which was on view at the Royal Opera Arcade Gallery in London (my stumbling was online, and not in London, unfortunately). The exhibit aimed to display global stories from women and their toilets to highlight the disproportionately negative effect lack of access to a decent toilet can have on women and children. One of the women featured in this exhibit (shown in the adjacent photograph) told NGO’s that her outdoor “toilet” is quite dangerous and only to be used at night for privacy – during the day she uses a community toilet 15 minutes away from her house.
Indoor plumbing – one more thing taken for granted until it’s not around! Perhaps not the best topic for the dinner table, but we hope you find your toilets and the built environment around them something to be thankful for on this holiday of reflection.