If there’s one thing that unites the people of Berlin, it’s that we all, every now and again, have to go to the bathroom.
Public toilets were once a mainstay on this city’s streets, the most famous of which is the cutely nicknamed Café Achteck, or “Octagon Café.” A bit of architectural history unique to Berlin, these eight-sided urinal huts reached their heyday around 1910, when there were approximately 140 throughout the city. Today, there are only about 30 left, just a few of them restored and in working condition.
Many of these historic public toilets were destroyed in the war, or demolished in the name of development and modernization. Some have been ingeniously converted into, for example, this Tunisian couscous restaurant or the Burgermeister joint at Schlesisches Tor. But one surviving toilet from 1910, a spin-off of the classic Café Achteck style, is not only still standing near my apartment, it’s also fully functional.
How have I lived in Berlin for six years and not once used one of these historic public toilets? (I have, however, used one of those modern, automated, coin-operated things, and can confirm that they are not, as they ludicrously claim, self-cleaning. Bleh.) I boldly set forth to where no female I know has ventured before and went to give this toilet, one of the oldest in Berlin, a try. It’s located not far from where I live, at the corner of Sonnenallee and Elbestraße in Neukölln.
The man running the pizza shop on the corner eyed me suspiciously as I circled the Toilettenhäuschen and approached the ladies’ entrance. I’m sure he must witness all sorts of, shall we say, interesting characters coming and going through the toilet’s doors, the kind of characters who are responsible for the toilet being locked after 19.00 every evening. I wonder if there’s ever any lady-cruising in the women’s toilets, I thought to myself as I opened the door.
I had expected the worst, but the single-stall Damentoilette was much cleaner than expected, clean enough that I could breathe normally and didn’t feel the need to bathe in disinfectant afterward. I’ve used toilets in plenty of Berlin bars, restaurants, and theatres that were far grosser. Toilet paper, hand soap, a fully stocked paper towel dispenser–luxury! Finally, proof that the taxes I pay are being put to good use!
As for all the long-lost historic public toilets, many of them architectural gems, this fascinating series of archival photos provides a comprehensive look. And one final tidbit of toilet trivia I learned in the writing of this post: the official term for public toilets is Bedürfnisanstalt, which is just so hilariously and absurdly formal, as German terminology can often be… It translates, roughly, as “institution for needs.”