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Flushing History Down the Toilet

September 10, 2014

The story of human civilization can be told through textbooks…or toilets.

Toilet ExhibitA recent exhibit in the central pavilion of Vienna’s Giardini della Biennale museum is using toilets to teach its visitors about the development of society through the ages. It’s all part of Venice’s 14th annual International Architecture Exhibition, which is titled “Fundamentals” and continues through November 23. Appropriately enough, an entire gallery has been set aside to show how toilets have played a pivotal, and very fundamental, role throughout history.

Visitors are presented with a series of displays that feature several historical commodes. They can learn about how toilets became more sophisticated as technology and civilization advanced from that era into the Middle Ages and beyond. Among them: a solid stone, and presumably very uncomfortable, potty from Ancient Rome, and a ceramic Austrian urinal built in 1895.

But the real fun is exploring some of history’s cruddiest commodes. Have you ever heard of a “valve closest”? If not, there’s a reason for that. While these toilets were popular among the wealthy in 19th century England, they were notoriously easy to break and their flushing systems were pretty worthless. They were eventually replaced with much more reliable models.

Along with information about everything from the development of bidets to how bathrooms have helped promote good hygiene, sanitation and the “livability” of cities, there’s also a few futuristic models like the Blue Diversion Toilet. It’s capable of cleaning and reusing water, which helped it win the top prize in Bill and Melinda Gate’s 2011 “Reinvent the Toilet” contest.

So why of all things are toilets featured so prominently in an architectural exhibition? Rem Koolhaas, the exhibit’s director, told the press, “No architectural treatise declares the toilet as the primordial element of architecture, but it might be the ultimate one.”

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