Park Relief

PROJECT Kensington Park, Robert Burnaby Park and Swalwell Park Public Washrooms, Burnaby and Lake Country, British Columbia
ARCHITECT Bruce Carscadden Architect Inc.
TEXT Adele Weder
PHOTOS Martin Knowles and Matthew Halverson

The utilitarian nature of public washrooms poses a peculiar kind of challenge to North American architects. The implicit proviso is to refrain from allowing the projects to look too good, lest the omnipresent taxpayer voter takes offense. For a trio of park washrooms in southern British Columbia, architect Bruce Carscadden has delivered an architectural riposte and, on its project statement, a four-word manifesto: small buildings matter too.

Two of Carscadden Architects’ washroom buildings are in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, and the third in the heart of the Okanagan. While visually distinct, they share the primal traits of modesty, ecology and economy. Carscadden has steered functionalism back to its proper role, which is to address pragmatism in an attractive way. The aesthetically enriching gestures are first and foremost useful: the textured concrete surface of Robert Burnaby Park washroom and the basket-weave brick pattern of the Kensington Park washroom are part of an overt approach to prevent graffiti. The extra-wide door openings, made even cleaner by way of an overhead metal rollup door, look good; more crucially, they enhance safety by reducing the hidden seclusion of the bathroom stalls, and by engendering an easy and highly visible escape route. As a bonus, they also damp down the impending dread, when approaching a public washroom, of sudden ambush by a stinking mess.

Visiting Kensington Park in northern Burnaby, I beheld a clique of a dozen or more young adults sunbathing and picnicking right next to this standalone structure. One woman expressed surprise that it was a public washroom; it didn’t “look” like one, she said. Another member of the group, a burly fellow in a tank top, smiled and offered the following: “I’ve been in a lot of poopers in my time, and this one’s as good as it gets.” It’s a friendly and comfortable building, from its pitched roof and bright-red hue to its “Russian doll” format–an interior “house within a house” contains the family washroom and mechanical core, and also serves as a divider between the men’s and women’s washroom areas. The glazed and vented peaked roof brings in fresh air and daylight, allowing a near-zero energy draw.

About a kilometre northwest is the Robert Burnaby Park washroom, embedded in the grassy berm around a large baseball diamond. Nestled in a slope and with a muted grey hue, this structure presents a far quieter architectural statement than the Kensington Park washroom. But like its sibling structure, it defies banality. Debossed in its concrete faade is a large reverse bas-relief of the word “ball” and, more discreetly, of the requisite male-female pictograms. The unusual faade articulation was achieved by placing custom-shaped foamboard cutouts in the wooden formwork, whose gaps also generated mortar-like protrusions in the faade.

For the Swalwell Park structure, Carscadden again devised an entirely different approach and appearance. A hard rectilinearity defines the shoebox-like structure, the better to showcase its intriguing and highly distinct pictograms generated by perforations in the metal. Like the tiny ben-day dots that used to make up newspaper photographs, the multi-sized metal holes create an image that becomes visible from a few feet away and farther. The practicality of this approach: it allows ventilation, light, and sound transmission for public safety. But it’s also evocatively beautiful and intriguing, in the manner of artist Dan Graham’s perforated-steel pavilions. The project is topped with a fusion of practicality and beauty: a lush green roof that collects rainwater and recycles the washroom’s grey water.

Carscadden’s colourful line drawings explain much without words. One diagram reduces each project as the sum of a simple, consistent counter/ wall configuration plus the particular mode of generating the faade: for Swalwell Park, the gap placements between every second brick; for Kensington, the bricks’ 15 rotation; for Robert Burnaby, the embedded word. In another playful image, a box bursts with Lego-like building blocks and tiny models of the washrooms, rendered in primary colours, which invokes both the core simplicity and the wider possible applications of the structures. Load-bearing brick, cinder block, concrete and steel comprise the basic palette for all three structures, even though each rendition has a strikingly different character.

What ultimately distinguishes this project series from the workaday public-building paradigm is its sensitivity and attention to the public rather than the park-board administrators and the politicians who lord over them. Yet maintenance and life-cycle costs are low for the client. Carscadden calls the architectural motif a “playful breaking down of barriers.” These would include the physical barriers of inside/outside, certainly, but also the psychological barrier between what the common perception of a public washroom is (dark, primitive and disgusting) and what the public might actually want (light, refined and pleasant). Perhaps the most important barrier broken down here is the one that inhibits architects from extending their full talent and attention towards modest public works. CA

Adele Weder is an architectural critic and curator based in British Columbia.

Project Kensington Park Washroom (KP), Robert Burnaby Park Washroom (RBP), Swalwell Park Washroom (SP)
Client City of Burnaby (KP, RBP), District of Lake Country (SP)
Architect team Bruce Carscadden (KP, RBP, SP), Glen Stokes (KP, RBP), Ian McDonald (SP), Stella Boyland (SP)
Structural C.Y. Loh Associates (KP, RBP), CWMM Consulting Engineers Ltd. (SP)
Mechanical Jade West Engineering (KP, RBP, SP)
Electrical MMM Group (KP, RBP), Falcon Engineering Ltd. (SP)
Civil R.F. Binnie and Associates Ltd. (KP, RBP), Earth Tech (SP)
Landscape Catherine Berris Associates Inc. (SP)
Contractor Parkwood Construction Ltd. (KP), Rogad Construction Co Ltd. (RBP), Forma Construction Ltd. (SP)
Budget $270,000 (KP), $375,000 (RBP), $325,000 (SP)
Completion September 2008 (KP), November 2008 (SP), December 2008 (RBP)