One Size Fits None: Mumbai-based architects aim to solve toilet conundrum in public spaces

Kalpit Ashar and Mayuri Sisodia's framework takes into account a pool of parameters such as sanitation technology, recycling systems, construction method, affordability, maintenance model,

Written by Shiny Varghese | Updated: April 29, 2018 5:43:36 am
Kalpit Ashar and Mayuri Sisodia. (Photos: Mad(e) in Mumbai)

WHEN Kalpit Ashar and Mayuri Sisodia, from the architectural firm Mad(e) In Mumbai, went around the Maximum City in search of public toilets that would speak a common utilitarian language, it led them to toilets with fake windows painted on walls; many with hoardings of party slogans; some with Warli art on the walls; one had vinyl-printed trees on the facade to blend into the surroundings; there was even an air-conditioned toilet. Yet, each of them, from within, was just a box — often poorly lit and ventilated, and low on maintenance. This search was a prompt for the competition in 2015 organised by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai under the Slum Sanitation Programme. Pratha Samajik Sanstha, an NGO that works in sustainable sanitation, commissioned the architects to build three model toilets along the Eastern Express Highway under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan campaign.

The India Sanitation Coalition, which recently held a conclave in New Delhi, notes that nearly 595 million Indians defecate in the open and 774 million people lack access to adequate sanitation, and over 23 billion still do not have basic sanitation services. Late last year, The Indian Express reported that Mumbai requires 1.28 lakh toilet seats. With the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation aiming at one toilet seat for 50 people, the reality seems far from the target. Currently, the city requires nearly 46,000 toilets and the corporation has built only 2,500 in the last two-and-a-half years.

Answering nature’s call: Model of the railway toilet. (Photo: Mad(e) in Mumbai)

“We want to change the way people view toilets. Most often, the lack of ownership in public toilets prevents their maintenance. What if these became places where people would find connections,” says Sisodia. They began working on what they call the Toilet Manifesto, a search to find a language that would help people and places settle with the grammar of the land. “The type of toilet you need on a pavement is different from the one you need on a highway. Also, geographically, the back-end sanitation differs, terrains are different. What you need in Leh is not what you need in Rajasthan. This project is an aim to look at form, material and technology for toilets in the public realm. We reimagined 10 forms, including for bus stops, parks, railway stations, anganwadis, and highways. For most people, the city is their home. We travel long distances to work and back but there is no infrastructure available to absorb our requirements. For instance, on a highway, you don’t only want to use the toilet, you might want to freshen up and change, or charge your phone, yet the toilets never address these needs,” says Sisodia.

Last year, after they were selected as one of the top 20 Social Innovators for 2016 by the Ministry of External Affair and Niti Aayog, they met Karnataka IT & BT minister Priyank Kharge, who commissioned them to build toilets for women in his Gulbarga constituency. The villages were near Shahabad and were off the sanitation grid. Women there have to travel long distances to get water and have little or no privacy or security. The proposed design aimed at fulfilling their basic requirements but also to create a toilet that would become a place to collect and recycle water. They also added a convenience store. Shahabad stone was easily available, and the women were practically given the keys to maintain the place.

Model of the highway toilet. (Photo: Mad(e) in Mumbai)

“When we began working on this project, we looked at building types. We realised there was no manual, no standards and no order in building public toilets. The Toilet Manifesto is an attempt to design a holistic framework through which the architecture of public toilets could be integrated with its community and environment. We look at materials, from lightweight to tensile structures, hybrid variations of steel and wood, wattle and daub. RCC (reinforced cement concrete) need not be the only solution,” says Ashar.

Their framework takes into account a pool of parameters such as sanitation technology, recycling systems, construction method, affordability, maintenance model, operational cost, and delivery models that will help agencies such as governments and NGOs to select what they deem fit and appropriate for their project. “During our conversations with women and children, we learnt that smaller children fear they will fall into the toilet, and mothers, who often have to take two children with them inside these public toilets, find it difficult to even move around. So, we wondered why should we have toilets which are all of the same size,” says Sisodia.

Model of the community toilet designed by the architects. (Photo: Mad(e) in Mumbai)

The Toilet Manifesto has brought forward questions on how we use our public spaces. “Our research led us to imagine and change the plans for toilets based on site and typology. On a railway station, for instance, quite often the toilets are on the platform. We wondered if these could be tucked under staircases, with a bit of structural tweaking, so that they don’t take up space. Likewise, we suggest that toilets in parks are kept to the periphery where the connect with the street or city is there to ensure safety. Also, to imagine it not only as a toilet but maybe extend the roof so that it becomes an amphitheatre. So, we planned the park toilet as a sprawling wall. For pavements, we could take the toilets below, using a flight of stairs, with a sunken courtyard to allow light and air to flow through, and people can walk above it,” says Sisodia.

Recently, the Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia saw an exhibition of their work at Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur and invited them to design modern, public toilets in the state. They have been commissioned to construct five types of toilets – pavement, highway, bus stop, urban plaza and park — across seven cities, including Jaipur, Udaipur, Kota and Ajmer. “We’re working with the Rajasthan government on revenue models and maintenance strategies,” says Sisodia, “We want to change the meaning of what a toilet can be — a holistic public space.”

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