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Britain’s Toilets Find New Uses

October 30, 2000

LONDON (AP) _ The Victorians really knew how to build a bathroom.

Britain is dotted with splendid little lavatory buildings, encircled by iron fences and crowned with arches or pergolas. The perfect places to, say, grab a bite, have a beer or watch a play.

In cities across Britain, public conveniences are finding new life as pubs, cafes, offices and theaters.

Some call it a fine example of urban regeneration. But others fear Britain’s public toilets are an endangered species.

According to the British Toilet Association _ yes, a pro-toilet lobby group _ a third of the lavatories run by city councils have closed in the last three years. There is now only one public toilet for every 10,000 people in England, they say.

``There are some wonderful toilets around, but they are few and far between,″ the association’s director, Richard Chisnell, told the Independent newspaper. ``There is a real crisis under way.″

London’s first public lavatories were built over rivers; their output was enough to choke off the flow of the Fleet River, a tributary of the Thames.

It was the Victorian engineer George Jennings who pioneered London’s distinctive public conveniences _ tiled underground chambers marked by iron railings or arches at street level.

Their introduction did not go unopposed, however. Playwright George Bernard Shaw, who was also a local politician, sparked outrage among burghers in his north London ward when he campaigned for a lavatory for the female workers of Camden Town.

Eventually, though, the toilets became a distinctive feature of British cities, with a Victorian lavatory even preserved in the Museum of London. But today, many sit chained and padlocked _ tiles crumbling, railings rusting.

Now the British Toilet Association has set out to stop the decline.

The group oversees the Loo of the Year award, judging hundreds of public conveniences on criteria including cleanliness, decor, cost, disabled access and odor. It has lobbied for a law obliging local governments to provide public facilities, and lamented the decline of the lavatory attendant.

``A society gets the toilets it will accept, and the time has come to stir things up and make a fuss,″ Chisnell said.

While many toilets have become run down, others have been reborn.

Through the familiar iron railings and down the stairs on a street in London’s energetic Spitalfields district is Public Life, a bar, cafe and art venue run by artist Siraj Izhar.

Izhar took over the abandoned loo as a venue for art events in 1992. Several shows and happenings later, he began to envision a more permanent space.

With a combination of private and government funding, he transformed it into a bright facility _ all tiles, concrete and glass _ offering coffee, drinks and high-speed Internet hookups.

In the future, Izhar plans art exhibits, film screenings, music events and poetry nights. He intends to beam a daily online diary into cyberspace.

``It’s a half-physical, half-virtual space,″ he said.

He views the building’s former function as apt.

``Underground thoughts, underground agendas ... staying below the surface,″ he mused. ``Mainstream ideas don’t really interest us.″

Elsewhere, lavatories have become fast-food restaurants, offices and pubs. In the northern English city of Manchester, the tiny Temple of Convenience bar even manages to squeeze DJs and live bands into the space once occupied by urinals and cisterns.

In Great Malvern, 130 miles northwest of London, a former Victorian men’s toilet is now the 12-seat Theater of Small Convenience, certified by the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest theater in the world.

It’s so small, in fact, that founder Dennis Neale says it’s a struggle to break even. He has installed peepholes in the door so more people can view the proceedings inside.

``Puppetry works better in the space than plays,″ he concedes.

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