A Place to Piss


Former camillienne in St. Louis Square

Montreal owes much to two twentieth-century strongmen/mayors: Camillien Houde and Jean Drapeau. Drapeau gave us sleek Modernism, expressways and artificial islands, but Houde was a more populist kind of guy who made his mark with public markets and, just as importantly, public toilets.

Camilliennes, as they came to be known, were Montreal’s answer to the Parisian vespasiennes, only far more elegant.

Washrooms were opened in prominent locations throughout the city, such as Phillips Square, where they were built underground and were accessed by two broad sets of granite stairs. In Viger, Dominion and Cabot squares, the toilets were housed in adorable stone kiosks with big windows and copper roofs.

The public washrooms built by Houde were Montreal’s first and last. Like in other North American cities, Montreal has closed all of its freestanding public washrooms, forcing those with full bladders to find a shopping mall, library or park pavillion in which to relieve themselves.

(When Viger Square was mauled and rebuilt in the late 1960s, its camillienne was transplated to St. Louis Square, where it became an ice cream parlour. The same fate befell the washrooms in Dominion Square and Cabot Square.)

The reasons for this are partly fiscal — it costs a lot of money to constantly clean and monitor a washroom — but also ideological. Drapeau, unlike Houde, saw public gathering as something suspect, the first step towards disorder, deviance and rebellion.

Closing public washrooms was a way to degrade public space, to make it less accessible, less desirable and less complete. An absence of public toilets assumes that nobody will spend enough time in the public realm to actually need to pee; everything that matters, it suggests, happens indoors, away from the street, in private and well-controlled spaces.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday October 08 2009at 11:10 am , filed under Canada, History, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

3 Responses to “A Place to Piss”

  • Mia says:

    What left the biggest impression on me when I visited Seoul were the public toilets. As a tourist in a new city, free, clean, obvious, toilets, were an absolute godsend. I believe that they may have been put in for the Olympics and just maintained afterwards because they were useful. Not too sure.

    But, point is, I don’t think of food, shopping, or museums when I remember the city. It’s all toilets.

  • C. Szabla says:

    …and I have vivid memories of toilets in the hutongs of Beijing, mainly because (presumably due to a lack of indoor plumbing?) they were such active community centers.

    I remember, specifically, seeing a very elegantly dressed woman bike down a particularly dusty hutong – I assumed she was merely taking a shortcut from one middle-class area to another – and stop in front of a public bathroom, which she entered, after taking shower gear and laundry from her bag.

  • B Penner says:

    A great post on an all-to-often overlooked subject!