Sitting down to the task of designing artistic toilets

August 14, 1993|By Karen Avenoso | Karen Avenoso,New York Daily News

NEW YORK -- Dali never dabbled in porcelain toilets. Picasso didn't paint Porta Potties. But who says a john can't inspire great art?

"We wanted people to think about disposing of waste as a visual issue," said the Municipal Art Society's Tracy Calvan.

Now, here's your chance. Some 300 designers -- from a Japanese architect to a Georgian surgeon -- answered the Urban Outhouse Design Competition's call for a "site-enhancing, self-cleaning" public toilet. Last summer, the JC Decaux public toilets made their big splash. Now, selected entries from the competition are on display at the Art Society (Madison Ave., between 50th and 51st Sts., [212] 935-3960) until Sept. 21.

Among the prize-winning urban outhouses is a plastic fire hydrant circled anxiously by an abstract red dog. Fourteen other lovely loos are also exhibited. A Texas designer proposed an outhouse styled like an ionic column, complete with friezes of toilet seats and suggestions for advertising slogans: "I came, I saw, I flushed."

One restroom is created entirely from recycled cans, while a higher-tech model, the missile-shaped "Bullet Universal Access Toilet," comes with halogen lamps.

If New Yorkers need to make a pit-stop as the M10 bus arrives, a plan called "Bus Stop, Sub Pots" provides for a toilet-and-bus-shelter in one. For those who worry about getting caught with their pants down, a Japanese designer invented a unique glass contraption: Walls glaze over when someone's on the bowl and turn transparent again following the flush.

"This competition brought out a lot of silliness," acknowledges Ms. Calvan.

Some of the contest's best bathroom humor: A plan that rolled in on colored toilet paper and an outhouse in the shape of a giant plunger.

Smutty jokes and titters aside, these toilet architects took nature's call seriously.

"There's a lot going on in a self-cleaning outhouse," says Craig Markcrow, co-owner of the Vermont Structural Slate Company, which sponsored the toilet contest after a similar competition for gazebos. "People were pleased to be able to work and think about this subject."

The bathroom blueprints include highly scientific instructions for drainage systems, baby seats, exhaust fans, sanitizers and tampon dispensers -- even a panic button for the person who faints or falls in.

And it turns out that toilet talk draws academic types as well as third-grade boys. One high-minded bathroom buff quoted Baudelaire. An environmentalist architect invented an outhouse with its own internal sewage system and fertilized hyacinths hanging over the side. A designer with a social conscience created a restroom that could also house the homeless.

The competition's judges say they were pleasantly surprised by the diversity and international scope of restroom submissions -- though in the end, the panel chose not to reward the splashiest johns.

The winning toilet, designed by two Paris-based Americans living in a land where Decaux outhouses dot every street, is sleek, simple and inconspicuous.

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