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Tokyo’s Unique Public Toilets by Toyo Ito, Tadao Ando & More Star in Oscar-Nominated Film

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Wim Wenders’ Perfect Days shines the spotlight on The Tokyo Toilet Project, an initiative that has brought together 16 leading architects and designers to redesign toilet facilities across Tokyo for universal accessibility.


By Arshan Hussain

14 April 2024


Hi Toilet, designed by Kazoo Sato and Hideaki Kubo, is an automated public restroom that is part of The Tokyo Toilet project | Image Courtesy of The Tokyo Toilet


The recent Academy Awards ceremony saw epic-scale films like Oppenheimer and Poor Things bagging golden statuettes. Yet apart from all the mainstream titles, one film that garnered attention was Perfect Days. The official Japanese entry nominated in the best international feature film category, the movie tells the story of a lone man living in modern Tokyo who derives the simple pleasures of life from his job as a maintenance worker cleaning  public toilets in the city. The Tokyo Toilet project, an initiative aimed at designing and/or revitalizing public toilets at 17 locations in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, forms the backdrop for the movie. 


The idea for The Tokyo Toilet project did not germinate in a municipal board meeting but followed from a conversation between Koji Yanai, a senior officer at Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo, and Shingo Kunieda, a former wheelchair tennis player widely considered the best of all time in his discipline. In 2016, when the two men had met to discuss the upcoming Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic games that were to be held in 2020, Kunieda expressed his concern for the absence of universally accessible public facilities across Tokyo and, thus, the challenges that visitors with disabilities were likely to face. With a desire to do his bit in resolving the issue, Yanai proposed the idea of public toilets that would be made for all. He reached out to the Shibuya city office and The Nippon Foundation, a non-profit grant-making organization, and wrote to 16 architects and designers from across the globe to work on cutting-edge public toilets. 


A view of the multipurpose toilet in Shigeru Ban’s design — all of these public toilets are equipped with multipurpose facilities for disabled people and others with special needs | Image by Satoshi Nagare; Courtesy of The Nippon Foundation


These facilities, most of which were completed during the first COVID-19 wave in 2020 with the remaining opening for public use by early 2023, are designed for accessibility. Most are also equipped with children’s toilets, baby care rooms and changing boards, and special facilities for elderly people, expecting mothers, and people with urinary or digestive issues. 


The project, a testament to the value of good design, has been a success; a survey conducted by the Nippon Foundation in 2023 revealed that these facilities saw a rise in women visitors because of the amenities they provided, with some even reporting a surge of five to seven times the footfall as compared to before renovation. Here are select designs that caught our attention.


A Walk in the Woods by Kengo Kuma

Known for his innovative use of material and light structures, architect Kengo Kuma’s design is based on village cabins. The facility comprises five cabins that accommodate the different needs of visitors from children to the elderly. Envisioned to be a ‘toilet village’ in the verdant greenery of Shoto Park, the huts are clad with used cedar boards that are installed at random angles to avoid urban formality. The circulation also enables minimum contact by providing multiple entries and exits — a design suited for the post-pandemic world.


A Walk in the Woods by Kengo Kuma feels like entering a woodcutters’ village | Image Courtesy of The Tokyo Toilet


Shigeru Ban 

Privacy and cleanliness are central aspects of any public restroom; while cleanliness is maintained through all the facilities of the project, architect Shigeru Ban’s design intends to ensure privacy through an innovative intervention. Three glass cabins, each serving as one toilet unit, are placed next to each other in groups of three. Once any of these units are occupied, the glass turns opaque thereby indicating occupancy. At night, these cabins emanate a soft light, lending the effect of human-scale lanterns.


Shigeru Ban’s glass cabins complement the playground with their colorful tinted glass | Image by Satoshi Nagare; Courtesy of The Nippon Foundation


Hi Toilet by Kazoo Sato & Disruption Lab Team

Creative media designer Kazoo Sato’s creation for the project is an eye-catching, pristine white dome in Nanago Dori Park called the Hi Toilet. It is a fully automated facility with all functions from opening the door to flushing activated by voice command. “My inspiration to design a fully voice-activated toilet came about after much research around users' behaviors in public toilets across the world to avoid contact with the surface,” says Sato. The form of the toilet was chosen by architect Hideaki Kubo to enable ventilation of unpleasant smells; the spherical ceiling helps in creating an air flow that enters/exits from the narrow outlets.

 

Hi Toilet, a white hovering hemisphere designed by Kazoo Sato and Hideaki Kubo, gives the people of Tokyo their first contactless toilet | Image Courtesy of The Tokyo Toilet


Amayadori by Tadao Ando

Suited to its name — amayadori means ‘shelter from rain’ in Japanese — architect Tadao Ando’s creation for the project is a circular pavilion with a protruding roof and engawa (an extended floorplate) that serves as a communal space. A latticed wall covers the exterior and a corridor encircles the toilets inside. This interior passageway enjoys light and wind throughout the day and can be accessed from two sides, thereby also facilitating cross-ventilation. 


Amayadori by Tadao Ando is designed as a shelter from rain amidst cherry trees | Image by Satoshi Nagare; Courtesy of The Nippon Foundation


Three Mushrooms by Toyo Ito

Right at the footsteps of the Yoyogi-Hachiman shrine (Japanese shrines are essentially temples that ‘enshrine’ local deities, which, since ancient times, are based in sacred forests or groves) architect Toyo Ito has created three amusing and giant mushroom-like buildings. Built to attain harmony with the shrine forest in the background, the mushrooms are hutments for three toilets with different functions. The choice of small round tiles, which create a soft seamless gradation to the ground, lends the buildings a natural zen-like look.


Perfect Days’ protagonist Hirayama walks past the the Three Mushrooms by Toyo Ito after finishing his work | Image Courtesy of Master Mind Limited, Spoon Inc., Wenders Images


Toilet of the Town Lights by Junko Kobayashi 

One of the only two female designers among the 16 creators is Junko Kobayashi. Her idea of a public toilet takes the form of a group of rusty cylinders over which a strikingly yellow disc hovers. Assuming the air of a cyberpunk setting, the public toilet is effortlessly seated beneath an elevated rail track. Each of these cylinders serves as toilet booths for varying needs. To add a sense of fun to the otherwise industrial look, silhouettes of rabbits are placed on the circular windows on the toilet booths. “We wanted to create a public toilet that has a strong presence,” says Kobayashi, “like a stubborn old man who is always watching over the people, while also creating a fun and entertaining atmosphere at the same time.” 


Junko Kobayashi’s Toilet of the Town Lights adds a cyberpunk touch to the project | Image Courtesy of The Tokyo Toilet




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