Photos Gollings Photography
The Warragul Comfort Station, by Anthony Styant-Browne Architects, is a striking urban object, designed with wit and gentle humour.
As a building type, the public toilet is both mundane and fascinating. Such facilities usually tend towards the utilitarian – more “bicycle shed” than “cathedral” – but socially they are complex entities. As the public location of private bodily activity, the public toilet is an ambiguous place where the distinction between public and private, one of architecture’s sacred cows, is maintained by only the most slender of screens. For some, this ambiguity is a source of unease, for others it opens up possibilities. For architects, perhaps the question is partly how form and space might work with this ambiguity: how might it accommodate (or prevent) this complexity of use, and should it attempt to still this potential unease?
The Warragul facility retains the genteel euphemism “comfort station”, as the architects enjoyed both the aesthetic of the signage salvaged from the earlier facility and the evocation of the niceties of an earlier era.
“Comfort station” partly veils the complex nature of publicly located privacy, but, by invoking both physical and mental ease, “comfort” also suggests that the facility is about more than utility.
The project began as a “laundering” of the existing, degraded toilet block. However, once building work was underway, the existing brick walls were found to be unstable and the concrete slab substandard. The building was rebuilt to the same dimensions, within the same footprint. A dramatic roof form now soars above this new block. Inside stainless steel fittings, ceramic tiles, plastic laminate sheet, galvanised steel and waxed walls provide easy-to-clean surfaces. Just as importantly, however, they also present an aesthetic of cleanliness – there is nothing so discomforting as a grubby toilet.
A further sense of wellbeing is provided by the warm glow of light reflected off the swooping plywood ceiling.
The architects point out that the oftenhumble toilet block is one of the few public institutions remaining after the privatisation drives of the last few years. The Warragul Comfort Station glories in this public role. It is not modest or reticent. Designed as a “minor monument in the urban landscape”, it is part of the broader redevelopment of the town centre, being undertaken by landscape architect Mark Reilly. Although small, the building aims to contribute to the public spaces of the street by providing a sheltered portico at the western end, and by setting up a dialogue with the post office behind – another public facility. Styant- Browne describes the urban strategy in Collage City terms: the building is an “object” set against the surrounding town fabric. This status as object is partly an effect of the plan relationship already established by the existing footprint, but it is most strongly conferred by the tilting aerofoil roof propped above the rectilinear form. At night, the building transforms into a beacon.
Light spills out of the clerestory windows, washing the building and its surrounds in a golden glow, and rendering it even more abstract and object-like.
Formally flamboyant, the Warragul Comfort Station is restrained in its facilities and strict in its gender distinctions. But such propriety was undermined on the rainy Sunday afternoon that I visited Warragul.
Comfort was only available to able-bodied men: the other doors were firmly locked. For the rest of us, relief was available only at the cost of transgression – sneaking into the “gents” while a friend or parent stood guard outside. However, judging by the steady stream of women and girls who tried the unyielding “ladies” door, the facility will be well-used when open.
›› “Comfort station” explicitly refers to the road traveller as a key user. Indeed, although the condition of comfort is relative, the thought of a long car ride and a full bladder lends the definition a certain fixity.
Warragul is a country town serving the surrounding farming community, but increasingly such towns also seek to attract the tourist dollar. Styant-Brown quotes an expert in rural recovery who refers to the phenomenon of “shit-lead recovery”.
Apparently the redevelopment of a town’s amenities block is a key move, both in encouraging tourism and in building local self-esteem. On the main highway east from Melbourne across Gippsland, Warragul is also at one end of the Gippsland Gourmet Trail.
Now tourists sated with wine, cheese, smoked goods, berries and other delicacies, can relieve themselves in style. But not every one in Warragul is happy. There is some public discomfort about money being spent on an elegant new toilet block, rather than more overtly pragmatic things like roading.
Negotiating between these different constituencies, the complexities of comfort and unease, public and private, continue to circulate within this striking new facility.
Justine Clark is assistant editor of Architecture Australia
Comfort Station, Warragul
Architect Anthony Styant-Browne Architect— project team Tony Styant-Browne, Colum Colfer, Leon Eyck, Nicole Hardman. Landscape Architect Mark Reilly Landscape Architecture. Structural Engineer Miles Civil Design. Quantity Surveyor Construction Planning & Economics. Building Surveyor ADI Building Services. Builder Farnham Developments. Owner Shire of Baw Baw—Ian deBruyne, owner’s representative