For the Lav of Art
Want to know about Viennese creativity? Just take a look at its lavatories, says Alex James. Photography by Alistair Fuller
It’s said that you can tell a lot about a restaurant by the way it keeps its toilets. Not just their cleanliness, but also their design. Question is: can you apply this theory to a city? Take Vienna, what can you deduce about this former capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire… from its lavatories?
Now don’t get me wrong. It’s no hobby of mine to explore the toilet scene whenever I travel to a foreign land. But ever since my Austrian flatmate – following a desperate, late-night attempt to find a clean public loo in London’s West End – told me of Vienna’s “lavs of art”, I just couldn’t give it up.
And in Vienna the celebration of the lowly WC has been taken to an extreme art form. From the streets and cafés to the underpasses and underground stations, there lies a hidden network of designer shrines to the call of nature. These temples often go unnoticed by visitors in favour of more renowned art such as Gustav Klimt’s masterpieces in the Secession or Egon Schiele’s nudes in the Leopold. But with Vienna’s renowned Art Week coming up on 16–22 November, now is exactly the right time to check them out.
“Controversy is nothing new with Vienna art,” says Ricky Renier, my guide and project coordinator for Vienna council’s arts body, KÖR. “Our most famous buildings like the Imperial Palace caused a scandal when they were built. Vienna’s art shows a commitment to the last detail. That social standard was set years ago, and you can see it now – right through to the fabric of how toilets are kept.”
Indeed. And so my journey into Vienna’s loos starts in Karlsplatz – one of the city’s busiest underground stations and transport hubs. Here the ultimate novelty WC awaits, and you’re likely to hear it before you see it (then smell it as the heady waft of cleaning fluid beckons commuters for a grade-A service!).
The Opera Toilet is themed around an ornate Viennese concert hall. The stunning backdrop welcomes you as you enter, and loud opera classics from the likes of Mozart pleasure your ears as you relieve yourself.
Adjacent to the Opera Toilet lies another themed loo, the Bar Toilet – this time modelled on a late-night bar with retro beer bottles encased in the walls and a beaten-up piano in the men’s room. This statement to toilet nirvana is a strange place to take a leak, but by no means as controversial as when it opened in 2006. Then the urinals were shaped in the style of women’s lips, reminiscent of the Rolling Stones logo. When the more conservative among Viennese women glimpsed the fact these female lips were to be the recipient of men’s splashes of wee the public outcry was huge. The urinals were removed and auctioned off on eBay for the sum of €3,000.
But perhaps when you consider the amount of new art going up around the city, it’s no surprise that Vienna’s public toilets are so individual. In the passageways of Karlsplatz underground station you’ll find some in the shape of wall pieces by artist Ken Lum. The installation, entitled Pi, consists of a series of digital figures revealing statistical insights into Viennese society, such as the amount of schnitzel eaten in the city in a day, or the number of people who have fallen in love (a figure that constantly fluctuates up and down).
“Art in underground stations is vital,” says Ricky. “Art is something you usually have to pay to see in Vienna, but free art brings colour to stations and people’s lives. The enamel surfaces of the station walls make them perfect for murals.” One classic mural is artist Oswald Oberhuber’s Permanent – Graffiti at Landstrasse station. And at other stations art takes the form of mosaics – Schottentor station (U2 line) features a piece by Barbara Krobath that hangs above the platform, made up of 40,000 pieces of Bisazza glass.
But back to toilets, and at one of the world’s first eco-housing complexes is one of Vienna’s true WC masterpieces. Built in the 1980s long before going green was fashionable (or even de rigueur), the Hundertwasserhaus housing estate is named after artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser who designed the building to be able to capture and recycle rainwater. It features undulating floors, a grass roof, and large trees growing from inside the rooms, with limbs extending out the windows.
But it’s in the basement that the real shrine to water starts. Hundertwasser’s heavily signposted Toilet of Modern Art looks like it could come straight out of Antoni Gaudí’s quirky book of design. Enter through turnstiles to find offset asymmetrical panelled tiles on the floors and walls, and smashed mirrors twinkling over the basins filled with pieces of mosaic and glass at odd angles.
Yet not all the city’s WCs are overtly quirky. Take one of Vienna’s most ornate restaurant toilets at Kuchlmasterei (6 Obere Weissgerberstrasse). Its washrooms are as much a dedication to refinement as the outside dining area, mimicking a Renaissance garden with classical statues spouting water amid the plush cubicles. Or the ladies’ toilets in The Ring hotel’s lobby – modelled on a movie starlet’s dressing room from Hollywood’s golden age.
Compare this more contemporary design with the public toilet on Graben – a street that cuts from the city’s Cathedral to the Imperial Palace in the old town. Built in the early 1900s, it’s all art-deco tiling and mahogany cubicles. One street down on Platz am Hof, a public loo is all spruced up with polished wood finishing and brass taps. And over at Café Donau (10 Karl-Schweighofer-Gasse) on a trendy street behind the Museum Quarter, the loos are more a temple to graffiti art than a place to wee. In the ladies’ room you’ll find a mesh of black lines adorning the walls put there for customers to colour in.
Taking the toilet art obsession one step further is café Süsses Häusl (24 Leopoldauerstrasse) next to Floridsdorf station on the U6 line. Here the chairs themselves are shaped like toilets.
What then do Vienna’s incredible public and private toilets tell us about the city? The resounding message is that, for the Viennese, even the most basic and perfunctory of human instincts can become an excuse for creativity. And in a city that lives and breathes art in its very fabric, if you don’t find these hallowed lavatories a source of inspiration you may at least find them a source of relief.
FOR MORE ON VIENNA ART WEEK 09, 16–22 NOVEMBER, VISIT WWW.VIENNAARTWEEK.AT OR WWW.AUSTRIAN.INFO. FOR GUIDED VIENNA WALKS & TALKS, VISIT WWW.VIENNAWALKS.COM. FOR UPMARKET ROOMS, STAY AT THE RING (8 KAERNTNER RING, TEL: +43 (0)12 2122, WWW.THERINGHOTEL.COM), OR FOR GREAT VALUE TRY HOLIDAY INN (53 MARGARETENSTRASSE, TEL: +43 (0)15 8850, WWW.VIENNA-CITY.HOLIDAY-INN.COM).
Cool Random Toilets of Europe
Sanisettes are the 400-strong self-cleaning grey Tardis-like bogs found throughout the city. These WCs were once more stinky than a Portaloo at a rock festival, but now councillors are replacing them with high-tech smart loos, complete with piped music, vandal-proof mirrors and space-age design.
In 2003, Tate Britain art gallery hosted an outdoor toilet that invited users to “defy their embarrassment”. It featured one-way glass, meaning you could see out but the public couldn’t see in!
In 2007, almost €800,000 was invested in the public toilets on Alexanderplatz. The walls of glass, stainless steel, and graffiti-proof photo art won these WCs numerous awards.
Given the Scottish penchant for a wee dram, it‘s no surprise their conveniences have to be pristine. The toilets on the pier at Rothesay – the Isle of Bute’s main town – are made of prestige Victorian marble.