Off the Beaten Path

Existing Comfort Station, Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park. Photo courtesy of WXY Architecture + Urban Design

Over sixty million people visit New York State Parks every year. Designing buildings that accommodate such a large and diverse group of users is no simple task, especially when that building, more than most others, is responsible for some of society’s most controversial — and personal — functions. Over the past several years, working first on a series of designs for cabins and more recently on prototypes for “comfort stations” that feature public restrooms, Claire Weisz, together with her firm WXY, has sought to both imagine and execute spaces that are not only sustainably produced, efficiently maintained, and replicable across the system’s 180 parks, but that also more creatively address inclusivity, access, and gender diversity than such bathrooms typically have in the past. In this interview with representatives from the organizations QSPACE and QSAPP together with Intersections guest editor Jacob Moore, Weisz discusses the challenges of working on such a project, and how architecture can reinforce — or undermine — diversity in public.

Urban Omnibus (UO):

How did you come to design new bathrooms for New York State Parks?

Claire Weisz (CW):

We had been working with New York State (NYS) on a series of designs for new cabin prototypes that could be installed in parks around the state, and they decided they wanted to do something similar for what they call “comfort stations,” which include public bathrooms. Prototypes are generally used by public agencies and authorities to deliver a consistent product on time and on budget. They had been trying to do that for both cabins and bathrooms for some time, but the different regions were having to adapt to an older model that didn’t reflect the park visitors’ needs, or, better yet, their aspirations. Ultimately the commission was a direct outgrowth of their need to address the diversity of family groups using the parks and to make sure that single parents as well as differently-abled individuals could shower, use toilets, and wash dishes in a way that allowed for both a feeling of security and equal access. They realized that the traditional ganged toilet, separated by gender, was not easy to secure, nor to supervise, and it made it difficult to help a grandparent or young child.

UO:

Did the brief rest on expectation of multiple simultaneous occupants? Is it just about families or other groups of individuals?

CW:

There was a broad acknowledgment that people go to NYS Parks in groups and use facilities in groups, and that within those groups there are needs for assistance, support, etc. regardless of biological relationship, age, and sexual orientation.

UO:

To what degree was gender articulated as a central concern?

CW:

In 2016, when the issue was receiving significant attention nationally, the department made it very clear to all collaborators that discrimination of any kind based on gender identity was not to be tolerated in any aspect of the process, including the design. And as of 2017, this was codified in their non-discrimination policy. Design-wise, though there weren’t exactly any mandates, it did seem evident their expectation was that a small amount of single- or multi-occupancy “family rooms,” in addition to the more expected gender-segregated rooms, was likely the best design response to this requirement, which of course isn’t necessarily the only option. This wasn’t their focus in the brief, however, which was principally concerned with issues related to sustainability, replicability, and ADA access.

UO:

Where did you look for precedents when you started your research?

CW:

We took a different approach from researchers who have looked broadly at the issue. We initially used NYS’s own catalogue of different public facilities: shower pavilions with washrooms, washrooms alone, both those that were mixed gender, and those that worked off the separated-by-gender model. We also surveyed staff about how operations and maintenance worked for each. Overwhelmingly, where male staff or female staff had to wait until a space was empty to clean it, that resulted in a lot of operational issues. The layouts that made a shared “atrium” leading into small single-use shower or toilet rooms that didn’t separate by gender didn’t have this problem. Right now, these are in the minority. Generally, the public washrooms are gendered, with a non-gendered “family unit” inside as a third option.

WXY developed scorecards (here showing the FDR State Park comfort station) to rate precedents according to different criteria that would ultimately guide their own designs. Image courtesy of WXY Architecture + Urban Design
UO:

How many helpful references were out there to find?

CW:

We eventually decided to bring in more international case studies to Parks staff and most of the good examples were in Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, and California.

UO:

You developed quite an extensive system to rate precedents, and the part of your scorecards that addresses gender reads: “Does the building enable equal access (regardless of gender or physical abilities)?” Could you provide any more specific examples of how this was evaluated? For instance, does one single-stall “family room” adequately account for gender diversity?

Far Rockaway Park bathroom design by WXY Architecture + Urban Design. Image courtesy of Albert Vercerka/Esto
PlaNYC Far Rockaway Park scorecard, bathroom design by WXY Architecture + Urban Design. Incorporating image courtesy of Paul Warchol
CW:

Our rating system’s audience was the parks’ staff and management. A single stall “family room” aided in accounting for gender diversity by giving a third option that was designated neither male nor female. There was a gradient of sorts in terms of accessibility for all. I think nearly all, if not all, of the case studies were accessible by wheelchair and those with physical disabilities. But for gender diversity, on one end was the comfort station in Jektvik, Norway where all of the facilities were gender neutral, and on the other end was an example like our own in Far Rockaway Park that we realized is gender specific with no “family room” or other facility that could imply a “gender neutral” option.

In most cases, we could only respond to the plan, form, material, structure, and other architectural characteristics to determine if a comfort station could account for gender diversity. We were unable to account for any enforced policies or added signage that would restrict and transform spaces that could be gender neutral into something gender specific. Also in our scoring, if a space was provided that could account for gender diversity, we checked the box, acknowledging that in actuality there was a gradient in how fully a comfort station may account for gender diversity.

Jektvik Ferry Quay Area, design by Carl-Viggo Hølmebakk. Image via ArchDaily
Jektvik Ferry Quay Area scorecard, WXY Architecture + Urban Design. Incorporating image via ArchDaily
UO:

And how did all of this research end up affecting your proposed design?

CW:

We ultimately developed three schemes, each with a differently enclosed, shared circulation and washing space — the “arcade,” “atrium,” and “veranda” — which is flanked by gender-neutral, fully enclosed stalls. Material considerations related to sustainability, cost, and maintenance  were key. Beyond that, in terms of access — and specifically gender — we felt that this approach delivered formal continuity with some of the previous comfort stations to which visitors were accustomed, while also moving beyond some of the problems related to access and inclusivity identified elsewhere.

“Veranda” comfort station design, WXY Architecture + Urban Design. Image courtesy of WXY Architecture + Urban Design
“Atrium” comfort station design, WXY Architecture + Urban Design. Image courtesy of WXY Architecture + Urban Design
“Arcade” comfort station plan, WXY Architecture + Urban Design. Image courtesy of WXY Architecture + Urban Design
UO:

What does “gender-neutral” versus “gender/human-diverse” mean to you, and how important is language in understanding inclusive design?

CW:

This is an important distinction. As designers, are we camouflaging these functions, celebrating them, or acting neutrally? More design pilots and research are needed in this sphere to discuss the idea of diversity and cultural accommodation. Many responses require a more neutral environment for public facilities, as opposed to facilities that are being built in private institutions. I think crowds and large group accommodations are one of the biggest challenges. Particularly the challenge of converting the efficient but institutionally coercive shower and toilet facilities in public high schools and middle schools into environments that respect and reflect the stresses that young people experience in school. Right now, these areas are the opposite of either human-diverse or gender-neutral.

UO:

Can you expand on the idea and possible forms of an architecture for “neutral environments”? Does “neutral” refer to what is in the current building code?

CW:

No space can really be neutral, and it certainly can’t be achieved through code. Empathy with regard to all users is the starting point. I think being aware of the fallacy of averages is also an important consideration that has to be corrected. Code has often been written based on the “average” user, which was assumed to be a very specific type of person or family configuration.

UO:

In the language of code, gendered bathrooms were originally about allowing women access to public space. What are your thoughts on the notion that now we are fighting for LGBTQ+ people’s access to public space, and that that effort might come at the expense of the aforementioned “women’s space”? Alternatively, binary bathrooms have historically been important sites for gay men. How do you grapple with the many queer histories of bathrooms?

CW:

I tend to think about this in terms of how, in general, spaces for human function have been sorted, silenced, and pushed to the back of the line. The client group that commissioned this work repeatedly asked “why are public washrooms important, anyway?” If the agencies charged with building for the public are only seeing these spaces as housing porcelain fixtures and we don’t push back, then we have lost an opportunity — not only to discuss the potential for total inclusivity, but to see the accommodation of basic human needs as aspirational architecture for everyone. So the hope is to highlight and leverage those needs in new ways, building on the histories to which you refer, rather than silencing them. Bathrooms and public washrooms have not had the focus of study that other architectural spaces have, and this is to a great degree because of our general repressive attitude towards human beings as animals, as well as our repression of discussion of biological needs and cultural practices. Bathhouses and bathrooms do have a history in urban areas like New York and San Francisco, of being the focus of social life that at certain points pushed back against repression. Currently the world of bathhouses is returning in the hospitality industry, but it’s not being funded or discussed at all across social classes as a public benefit and need.

UO:

Considering all of this research and design, how has your thinking about the relationship between gender and sexuality, and the way this is made evident in the bathroom, changed over the years?

CW:

My own thinking has evolved primarily because of the work of LGBT activists in promoting the understanding of gender as a gradient and advocating for more awareness and research in sexual and gender diversity. I’ve also evolved on a personal level, being a parent to children who have resisted gender stereotypes.

UO:

Does your personal identity intersect with your practice in other ways? For example, does your being a “woman in architecture” influence your approach to designing inclusivity?

CW:

Emphatically, yes. But this is not exclusively yes. I think all aspects of one’s conditioning, preconditioning, education, and environment set you up to either value diversity or fear it in various proportions. But my gender education has mainly come from occupying various roles and responsibilities while being treated as a woman: teaching, motherhood, being a business owner, the co-founder of an organization, etc. Each of those roles gave me a different perspective on my own insecurities and biases. I felt strongly enough about the lack of progress to want to promote a discussion and organized in 2012 the Yale Women in Architecture event that was about the work of both women who identify as women and women who have women on their birth certificates.

UO:

In this context of professional practice, how would you say that gender and sexuality intersect? For example, we increasingly talk about what it means to be a woman in architecture, but we still rarely talk about what it means to be queer in architecture.

CW:

Sexuality and gender are clearly two conditions that affect the profession of architecture but are distinct. Gender biases affect everyone and continue to persist, as do biases towards people’s sexual orientations and gender identities. This affects their access to advancement both in the workplace but also in terms of commissions and larger opportunities. Often those not perceived as being in the mainstream have had to find a way to produce work and influence the field from the outside.

UO:

Has working on the public bathroom project impacted other aspects of your design practice?

CW:

The effect is pretty significant. It turns out that almost all of our projects need some form of bathroom and/or locker facility. After doing this work, and seeing how regressive ganged bathrooms are, it really feels like the detail and nuance of how to design spaces for washing and relieving oneself need to be discussed openly and with much more innovation.

UO:

What’s the architect’s responsibility when it comes to affecting the conversation beyond (even if initially through) the form?

CW:

This discussion is one of the most critical for architects because it sheds light on how we rarely understand that architects are complicit with the worst impulses of civil society. We design to the status quo — as outdated and limiting as it may be — and then society is stuck with our work for decades. Architects have got to start leading the discussion about what living means.

QSPACE, here represented by A.L. Hu + Lauren Johnson, is a queer architectural research organization currently based at the GSAPP Incubator within NEW INC.

QSAPP, here represented by Jarrett Ley, is a student organization that seeks to foster both conversation and community among LGBTQ students, allies, faculty, and alumni of Columbia GSAPP. It explores contemporary queer topics and their relationship to the built environment through a critical engagement with design and its political intersections.

Claire Weisz is the principal-in-charge and a founding partner of WXY architecture + urban design, recently named Firm of the Year by the New York State AIA. Since 1992, Claire has developed WXY into an interdisciplinary practice that re-imagines the built environment at the intersection of architecture, urban design and infrastructure. Claire is a Fellow of the AIA and the Urban Design Forum; she co-founded The Design Trust for Public Space, NYC’s premier urban design think tank; and has served on design juries both nationally and internationally.

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Intersections

As designers and urbanists engage with LGBTQ+ identity, what role do gender and sexuality play in the preservation, design, and management of urban space today?

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