A tour of the £4 million renovations of the subterranean toilets at London Victoria Rail Station
The Toilet Approach
The moment you decide that you need to use the public toilet there is a heightened awareness of your surroundings and the ease, or difficulty, in finding the facilities. In Victoria Station, the newly refurbished toilets are conveniently located in the central concourse.
It’s a busy train station that is frequented by some 80 million travellers every year. With the universal signs displayed in blue and positioned high to be seen by the even the tallest of crowds, the facilities are easy to get to from all 19 platforms as well the main entrance of the station.
The main toilets are approached via stairs which feels like a different experience than at other stations through the new aesthetics. Both the men’s and women’s toilets are located below ground level and are accessed by separate stairs in which users descend. Disabled, gender neutral are accessed on ground level via radar key and in the main toilets, there are two available.
A Spacious Approach
I had no preconceptions and Victoria Station toilets did not disappoint. A word that would sum up the new toilet facilities is dignifying. With the decline in the availability of public toilet facilities any provisions are welcome, however when the design puts today’s needs and that of the thousands of users ahead of cramming in a badly functioning additional cubicles, it should not go unrecognised.
The message that stems from having to fumble around your bag for a 30p entrance fee to carry out a basic human need signals that financial gain is a higher priority. The decline in using cash in this digital age, leaves many without the change and having to find alternatives or the kindness of someone having change. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth before you’ve encountered the conditions that lies beyond the barrier.
The removal of the physical and monetary barriers is a welcoming tone at Victoria Station, adding to the visual elements that create a welcoming environment. Design by Landolt + Brown architects, the walls gleam with white subway tiles signifying an agreeable level of hygiene and make the underground environment feel spacious. As it goes, there is plenty of room to accommodate two aisles of cubicles, separated by a central hand basin unit.
There is enough room to be welcomed by sectioned of room that sees greenery sit behind glass dividing wall, in addition to two seating areas which do not invade on space needed to queue for the facilities. At the furthest end of the space, a large mirrored area for ladies to apply make up, ends the neat row of cubicle and adds to the perception of space in the windowless environment.
From a point of view of sustainability the choice of materials installed is an important element of the design. You look around the type entire space and see materials that have the potential be recycled at end of life and there are only a few uses of plastic.
The two hand rails that lead you from the entrance down to the facilities is an obvious health and safety feature. Here, is the noticeable presence of plastic as they coat the wooden core. With the facilities being only month old, it was unfortunate that there were several areas that had already shown signs of wear and duct tape had been used as a temporary fix.
The cubicle doors are clad with copper coloured PVD (Physical Vapour Deposition) sheets sandwiching a wooden core. This configuration makes for a thicker door and the ability to install a mortice lock, which is more robust than a typically used sliding bolt.
Doors provide privacy as much as safety and the doors give the appearance that both factors have been taken into consideration while also being on a higher quality finish than compact doors of say 13mm in thickness.
In a row of several cubicles in a row, you are usually able to feel the vibrations of every door being opened and closed, however, this is noticeably absent in this refreshing design.
You can ignore the benefits of hinges until you encounter a squeaky one, or worst, a door that is falling off its hinges. Here a minimalist design does away with any detailing that can easily gather dirt and dust. From the point of view of security, strong hinges where the leaf is concealed, leaving on the barrel exposed, means that the toilet cubicles can’t be easily broken in, protecting users of toilet violence.
It can’t go without noting the importance of hooks in toilet cubicles. Their presence allows for the floor space to be kept clear from having to handbags and shopping bags to be place on the floor.
As women are likely to carry handbags and/ or shopping bags and the average weight of a handbag being 2.5 kg, coat hooks must hold substantial weight. With ample space in the stall, the hook is hung on the dividing wall yet doesn’t encroach on using the facilities or fully opening the door.
I took a moment to observe how effective the hand-basin area works. A line up of gold (in reality PVD coloured stainless steel) taps with accompanying soap dispensers sit under an arrangement of mirrors and frosted light panels that conceal hand dryers. Cosmetically, it is a considered collaboration of all the materials with a layout out that steers water in the right direction.
Looking past the lack of ability to hang a bag or to rest it on a shelf, ladies either held their bags between their legs, leant it carefully in the basin edge or hook it on to their available wrist.
To thoroughly wash hands in the typical manner of rubbing hand soap on both hands followed by it being washed off with water and then dried via a hand dryer, it is easiest when hands are free. Of course, with space underneath the communal handbasin, users could opt to place their belongings there. Perhaps this was the intention of the design.
The copper edging of the terrazzo communal handbasin echoes the copper clad cubicle doors and is another visual aid for sight impaired users.
The less elements within a public toilet facility that you have to touch, the greater assurance of hygiene there is. Hygiene is a high priority to both users and cleaning operatives and the hand washing process greatly benefits from a decreased chance of cross contamination between users. In both of the Victoria Station toilets the DVP taps, accompanying hand soap dispenser and hand dryers are all touch free.
Contrasting from the solid copper cubicle doors, when you move to the hand-washing areas the brass sensor taps are a welcome metallic element. Complete with matching soap dispenser and hand dryer concealed behind the mirror, which also is controlled by sensors, you need not physically touch anything during the entire hand washing activity. It makes sense to locate the dryer concealed behind mirrors above the hand basin. This leads to a drier floor, a larger capacity for dryers and less queuing.
Having the facilities below ground level has a knock-on effect with access to natural light and the reliance on artificial lighting.
Neither facility has availability of natural light, however by installing glass panels at the top of each stall divider, alongside backlit light it is a clever lighting illusion that creates a bright space throughout the toilets.
The space is further keeps a feeling of openness by the use of white glossy tiles lining all the walls from floor to ceiling located outside the cubicles. To bounce the artificial light around.
Had the signage been absent, you could very well be making your way to the tube platform. You descend the stairs passing walls lined with gleaming subway tiles, laid diagonally to replicate the downward motion.
Secondary Toilet Facilities
In the smaller of the two available toilet facilities, which are located in a more tucked away location within Victoria station, it is pleasing to find the same aesthetic echoing the main facilities. Again, it is windowless therefore the light colour palette teams well with artificial ceiling lights. However, the design considers the smaller capacity. This includes the lower ceiling height and its lack of stairs due to it being on the ground level. Further along the same platform are more disabled toilets.
Again, here the lack of entrance door or barrier makes it automatically inviting and the curved walls cleverly does away with sharp corners. Its feel is like the underground corridors you transition through when walking from platform to platform. Instead of a platform awaiting you, you arrive at a bright and pleasant toilet facility.
6 cubicles lie beyond the copper coloured PVD doors which are set out on the right and left of the aisled space. The arrangement leaves ample space for 2 communal hand-basins nearest the entrance yet providing enough space for potential queues.
It is a wise and hygienic design choice to use copper doors. The contrasting brushed effect on the oversized push plate adds to the simple design of the stall doors but is also helps to limit the wear and tear. This is the most touched part of the door, without a outer handle, who’s to know where each user will push the door open with their hand, shoulder or elbow. Tall ladies, shorter ladies, and children using the facilities therefore the oversized plate is practical regardless of the user.
Chrome can feel somewhat clinical when used in large proportions, while brass/gold can be at the other end of the scale and feel rather brash given the location. Copper, however, is a wise medium between the two. Its effect is contemporary. Its subtle combination alongside lesser touches of chrome, brass and glass is a proportioned well. Neither metal competes with the other as they are spaced out so not to clash.
Despite there being no source of natural light, the toilets refrain from being pokey. However the frosted glass which is backlit gives a diffused level of light. It gives the impression of there being an outdoors on the other side of the toilets.
The combinations of glass, glossy white subway tiles and copper is a palette that’s easy on the eye and not overly feminine. Instead it is a mellow invitation of colour that holds on the connotations of hygiene yet offers visual stimulation.
It is a given that provisions for the deposal of sanitary protection are an essential component to the female toilets. However, somehow the provisions commonly feel like an afterthought.
The spacious cubicles gave ample room to house sanitary bins without being positioned too close to the toilet. Despite the clever material uses through the entire toilet space, the bins were plastic and not fully functional.
Overflowing to the content leaves users vulnerable to the exposure of Hepatitis B and HIV. The lack of foot-pedal means users have no choice but to touch the sanitary bins with their hands or flush sanitary waste down the toilet.
The inadequate disposal provisions do not seem to answer the environmental issues we are facing today and as menstrual cycles will continue to be a natural bodily function provisions, perhaps an overhaul of existing designs is required to make then user-friendly and sustainable.
Maintenance & cleaning
Wall-cladding is easy to clean and has the benefit of being a flat surface free of textures that harbour dirt and dust. This is advantageous from the perspective of cleaning attendants, who can return the facilities to a good standard while using less abrasive methods within a timely fashion.
A more permanent sign to let visitors know that the cleaning attendants are male and female would be beneficial. At the moment a sign adheres to the wall with tape and looks temporary, ill-fitting with the overall aesthetics.
Another clever design feature is the curved perimeters of the space. Rather than a sharp meeting between the walls and floor, the curved detail prevent dirt and dust collecting, especially in less used areas off the toilets.
Dignity through a dignified design demonstrates to travellers, from all walks of life, that they are cared about. Doing away with the paid and gated entrance is the first sign that all are welcome. The overall aesthetics and attention to detail makes for a good environment for the thousands of users as well as the cleaning operatives.