Urinalimbo: Masculinity’s Last Stand?


The Architectural Mystique

Volume 1, Issue 23
April 7, 2016


The future of the urinal is in limbo. As the only fixed obstacle to the interchangeability of binary (female-male) bathrooms, they are proving to be a stubborn and highly contentious tripping point in decisions about gender-neutral architecture.

Occupying an ambiguous middle ground between public (but not inclusive) and private (but not really), urinals pose some obvious problems for de-segregated bathrooms. In addition, their social role – maintained through the behavioral rituals of urinal culture and use – and their symbolic role as a phallocratic totem reinforce ideas of exclusivity that are antithetical to accessible space.

It is unclear just how many people would stand to lose if urinals are eliminated entirely. Domestic and small-office arrangements currently tend to rely on gender-desegregated toilet bowls, which allow users to sit or stand. And even in public settings, not all men use urinals; this includes men who are shy, some (but not all) trans men, men who are unable to use them for reasons of disability, and a growing fraction of American men who pee sitting down simply out of preference. In short, removing urinals might not be a big deal.

Sure, there are some advantages to urinals: they are time-efficient, water-saving, and they allow for (some) worthwhile social interactions in a world that increasingly walls us off from each other. Urinals also require users to touch fewer door handles (a bonus for my fellow germaphobes) and cut down on nightmare scenarios involving a stall-dwelling stranger and a malfunctioning door lock.

But urinals are imperfect, even for those who are able and choose to use them. Our quest for efficiency can also mislead us; there is surely a special place in Dante’s infernal circles for whoever decided the “dry” urinals of Rudolph Hall were the best place for us to go waterless.

The real cost of urinals, of course, is their exclusivity. In almost any conceivable configuration, they create de-facto bathroom segregations, which inevitably deny people equal access to a public resource and encourage a dangerous regime of body and gender policing. Such spaces become particularly harmful for people already living on society’s neglected margins for reasons of identity, ability, or genetics.

If we are to avoid sending the urinal to a premature grave, perhaps its salvation lies with us as designers. Methods of adapting urinals to become more accessible have already been met with limited success abroad. Unisex and female STP (“stand-to-pee”) devices have become more popular throughout Europe over the last two decades, and a broad range of urinary aids have been marketed across the world to adapt standard masculine urinals for use by women and trans men. The task of the architect is thus to incorporate invention into larger socio-spatial schemes that liberate users from the oppressive and binary-normative surveillance state of modern bathrooms.

As we engage with the implications of gender-neutral space, I’m reminded of the old adage that if we don’t stand together, we fall alone. But maybe that isn’t quite true; maybe we would just stand alone. And in a bathroom, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.

[i] United Nations Environment Programme. “Buildings and Climate Change.” 2009. Available at http://www.unep.org/sbci/pdfs/SBCI-BCCSummary.pdf.

[ii] Cavanagh, Sheila L. Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygienic Imagination. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 2010, at 219.

[iii] Id, p. 28.

[iv] For a list of marketed STP devices, see, e.g., Hudson’s FTM Resource Guide. “Bathroom Use & Stand-to-Pee (STP) Devices.” Available at http://www.ftmguide.org/bathroom.html.

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Volume 1, Issue 23
April 7, 2016