Transdisciplinary Design


Posted on December 18, 2019

Public Infrastructure, Public Bathrooms

Governed by biological necessities we rely on access to bathrooms, making them one of the most important pieces of physical infrastructure that shapes our everyday lives. For those who live or work in cities, public bathrooms can bear an even stronger influence, considering the multiple roles they serve and the often limited access to them. 

Aside from their ostensive function, sociologist Spencer Cahill positions public bathrooms as ‘backstage’ areas in public life which act as “socially approved shelters for [both biological and] physiological acts that are inconsistent with the…standards that govern our public performances”. He describes the importance of the many “taken-for granted functions of [public] bathrooms and toilet stalls”, such as “managing personal fronts” (like applying makeup) or “staging talk” (debriefing with friends) [1].

Regardless of both the biological and physiological essentiality, there are a number of factors that limit, obscure and deny access to a sufficient amount of public bathrooms in cities.  

Fundamentally, access to public bathrooms can be defined as the sufficient provision of public bathrooms. Access however, is much more multifaceted, including issues such as safety, gender identity, cleanliness and adequate facilities for those with different abilities. And yet, this fundamental provision of access is not even being met in many cities, influencing the health and days of inhabitants. 

New York City is one such city infamous for not having sufficient public bathrooms. With various ineffective or incomplete interventions, responsible city departments have failed in providing fundamental access, let alone complete access, to a key public infrastructure for the city’s inhabitants. 


Brooklyn Public Library, Designing the Public Bathroom

It is the public libraries across the five boroughs that provide the most comprehensive access to public bathrooms. In fact, the bathroom has been cited by staff and scholars as the most important room in the library with many patrons solely visiting the space to use the facilities.

This heavy use, with varied patronage (from nannies to teenagers to those who are homeless), means that the public bathrooms in public libraries have to be carefully designed and redesigned in order to provide suitable access in the best way possible. 

The spaces of public libraries have long been designed with uniformity and specific utility in mind. Many of the libraries in Brooklyn (and in New York as a whole) were buildings funded by Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie between 1883 and 1929, which lended a very specific style of architecture, both externally and internally. Another key moment of specified design was instigated by the Department of Design and Construction’s 1996 which instructed on the minutiae of detail, including in the bathrooms, specifying things such as the inclusion of a “shallow recessed, tiled ledge behind the lavatories” or the location of mirrors “away from sink areas” [2]. 

This type of infrastructure design is arguably what architect, writer and professor Keller Easterling would reference as “know that”, a prescriptive or formulaic, and therefore often ineffective, approach [3]

Having said that, many of the individual branches in Brooklyn have applied what Easterling references, and champions as, “know how” in the design of their public bathrooms. This approach has resulted in the application of situated knowledge to reconfigure the public bathrooms in ways that better address access. 

An example of this situated design can be seen in the Bedford Branch in Bedford Stuyvesant. At this branch there is a single unit bathroom that is accessible to the public at all times. Responding to issues of drug misuse in the bathroom and pressure from one particular ‘concerned’ patron, the branch removed a number of bookshelves, installed a key system and hired security personnel for better oversight of the bathroom. 


Drug Use and Infrastructure Space 

As well as changing the physical infrastructure of public bathrooms in libraries, both categories of design intervention (prescriptive ‘know that’ and situated ‘know how’) influence shared yet often unspoken ideas, standards and rules that govern the space of the bathrooms. This is an idea that Easterling refers to as infrastructure space, an idea that can be likened to an operating system.

There are often attempts to intentionally programme spaces “to encourage some activities and routines over others”, to ultimately create a particular infrastructure space [3]. The physical changes at Bedford were not merely designed for better overview of the bathroom but also to elicit or discourage certain behaviour in that space, with aims of providing safer access. An example of this being the appointment of security staff to discourage illicit behaviour or the introduction of a hefty keychain to discourage people from taking the bathroom key with them. 

The trouble however with infrastructure space is that it is hard enough to see and understand, let alone programme. In the case of Bedford, they have been unable to wholly change patron’s behaviour, with drug use continuing despite the designed changes. In fact, the single occupancy locked bathroom makes it a centre of tension in the library, enforcing it the most important room in the space for more challenging reasons. 


Dispositions of Dispositions

This ‘failed’ programming at the Bedford branch speaks to what Easterling explains as the disposition of infrastructure space; “a ball at the top of an incline”, or something imminent “in the relationships between the components” [3].

The disposition of both physical and infrastructure space is perhaps most salient when it points to the unsuccessful or unintentional wiring thereof. As Easterling argues, disposition can be an important diagnostic in uncovering “accidental, covert, or stubborn forms of power – political chemistries and temperaments of aggression, submission or violence – hiding in the folds of infrastructure space” [3]. 

Thus, understanding the disposition of the infrastructure space (in this case the issue of ‘undesirable’ behaviour) prompts investigation into the reasons behind the continued drug use despite both prescriptive and situated design approaches, or more broadly, why the branch hasn’t been able to provide a fully accessible bathroom space for all patrons. 

The answer, in the words of Bedford librarian Alicia, is that the issue “is bigger than the library”. 

What this means is that the ball on the top of an incline does not exist in a vacuum. That Bedford and its bathroom infrastructure do not exist in a vacuum. There are a multitude of coalescing, unpredictable, entrenched enacting forces which influence the physics of the way in which the ball interacts with the incline, or the public bathroom with the wider space, community and society. There are, if you will, dispositions of dispositions.  



These ‘dispositions of dispositions’ point towards the fact that access of public bathrooms in public libraries is not a neat design problem that can be solved in a vacuum. There are too many interconnected, overlapping physical infrastructures and infrastructure spaces within the library (system), bureaucracies and policies (locally, nationally and globally) and wider influencing social systems and structures. 

This complex intertangling can be recognised as another of Easterling’s terms, that of extrastatecraft, “a portmanteau describing the often undisclosed activities outside of, in addition to, and sometimes even in partnership with statecraft”. Or, further explained as the “massive global infrastructure systems, administered by mixtures of public and private cohorts and driven by profound irrationalities [which] form a wilder mongrel than any storied Leviathan for which there is studied political response”[4]

This Leviathan is something that has only multiplied over recent years, particularly in the realm of the provision of public infrastructure, with the complication of responsibilities and compounding, related ‘wicked problems’. 


A New Relational Approach

It becomes clear that in facing these new, increasingly complex problems and entanglements an adapted approach is needed. 

Not only must we employ the effective, measured, equitable combination of more formulaic ‘know that’ and situated ‘know how’ approaches, but a vital ‘know what’ foundational element. It is imperative to know what the related extrastatecraft looks like. What the entwined wicked problems are. What ways the larger system is operating in. Plainly, what the larger picture is. 

Still, this will not be enough in creating change, particularly because this is not a new concept for many who are already doing the work, including those working in the library. If we are to address the Leviathan, we must take a relational approach in order to act on ‘knowing what’. 

A relational approach means moving across silos, being transdisciplinary. It means shifting and sharing responsibility and demanding accountability. Addressing multiple leverage points across multiple systems simultaneously. A relational method focuses on building capacity to work together across teams, organisations and sectors. One in which care and support is core. One that resists the defaults of the systems being fought against. A relational method must, in the words of Easterly, tutor “an artistic and political imagination” in designing, making, planning and enacting change together





*This piece was written based on work conducted in the Fall Semester 2019 in Design Led Research and Studio One which conducted multiple research threads with the Brooklyn Public Library*


[1]   Cahill, Spencer E., William Distler, Cynthia Lachowetz, Andrea Meaney, Robyn Tarallo, And Teena Willard. “Meanwhile Backstage: Public Bathrooms And The Interaction Order.” Urban Life 14, No. 1 (April 1985): 33–58. Doi:10.1177/0098303985014001002.
[2] “Brooklyn Public Library Design Guidelines.” Design Trust for Public Space, 1996.
[3] Easterling, Keller. 2014. Extrastatecraft: the power of infrastructure space.
[4]“ESC: About.”, 2014.