Register Friday | October 22 | 2021

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.

(From Urban Photo)