By MEREDITH PRICE
Perhaps they were once the place in a restaurant, club or bar where the least time was spent. But with extravagant, creative designs reaching new heights, bathrooms are becoming the most important space to consider in the theatrical circus of the night.
No longer just a place to wee alone, primp and leave, les toilettes are now a venue to explore, see and consider in the lively center of Tel Aviv.
The elaborate bathroom designs that are springing up all over the city employ as many materials, gimmicks and tricks as they can to secure their place in the restroom competition that has every bar, restaurant and club owner vying for first prize.
Narcissistic communal basins stand arrogantly in central positions, eccentric doors with electrical currents and elevator buttons shamelessly bewilder clients, antique crystal chandeliers and rotating globes with multi-colored shimmers flatter ceilings, and baroque squiggles and bottle-green tiles scream from the walls as rich, velvet drapes hang quietly aside, watching the action.
â€œAll of the night-venue owners are putting money into the bathrooms and trying to do something different,â€ says Shimi Schwartz, the owner of the Ingrid bar and restaurant, who imported the glass for his stalls all the way from New York.
As more and more places begin to bend the rules, the game is growing to gigantic proportions and spreading to the surrounding suburbs.
From social gatherings around an antique fountain to intimate interactions in the dark corners of large stalls, the bathrooms are where it's at in the night scene. People meet while washing hands around a shared sink, or standing in line for unisex commodes against a background of mirrored walls or industrial railings, where outrageous designs and bold materials encourage loitering and conversation, where lines of cocaine are sniffed from dimly-lit, expedient shelves and where, for some, the most exciting events of the night take place.
â€œThe age of decadence has arrived,â€ sociologist Oz Almog says about the latest trend in mod Tel Aviv. â€œThe outrageous bathrooms are part of the sexualization of the country and they also reflect the Israeli tradition of importing lifestyles from abroad,â€ he explains.
Just as gender-neutral bathrooms a la Ally McBeal are mushrooming across the United States, sparking fiery debates about sexual rights and potential violence, the movement toward unisex toilets has been adopted, stretched and elaborated upon here in Israel.
â€œThe toilets, like the rest of the space in night venues, are finally receiving the attention they deserve,â€ says Alex Meitlis, the architect of Messa restaurant and The Dome night club.
As the standards of design rise and unique creations are installed around every corner, bathrooms have to be bolder and bolder to grab the attention of revelers who come from all over the country to enjoy Tel Aviv's bacchanalian excitement; bar flies have come to expect outrageous attractions in the â€œlooâ€ as a standard part of their evening entertainment.
â€œWhen I go out to an interesting place, the first thing I look at is the bathrooms,â€ says Hagar Matityahu, a young Tel Aviv resident.
And for some, the longer it takes to get there, the better. â€œIf you need to walk through the entire place to get to the bathrooms, it gives you something to do and it's a way to check out who is already there,â€ says Matityahu.
In order to make it even more interesting, some night venues have opted to put their toilets in a loft-like space that gives people waiting in line a chance to see the entire bar. At Luxor, for example, four stalls against a back wall are opposite an industrial railing that overlooks the entire space. To make things even more remarkable, owner Eyal Eliyahu decided to purchase elevators (real ones, not just the doors) for his stalls.
â€œIn the last few years, bathrooms have become a real attraction in bars, so I wanted something original but simple,â€ says Eliyahu. â€œI decided to purchase elevators, but it wasn't an easy process.â€
Over the phone, the elevator sales people thought he was abnormal when he told them that he wanted to transform the elevators into bathrooms.
Eliyahu eventually managed to buy the elevators and have them installed upstairs, complete with elevator buttons to open and close the doors outside and inside, and a ceramic toilet that sits elegantly off the metallic ground beneath a soft, blue light.
As you come up the stairs, the elevator doors are closed, so many clients (especially those who have had a few drinks) think they have to take an elevator downstairs to get to the real bathroom. Others report feeling very strange using the restroom inside an elevator; the fear that the door will suddenly spring open in mid-use is part of the emotion Eliyahu intentionally created.
â€œI wanted to generate a feeling of fear and excitement so that people will think about going to the bathroom in a different way, so that it will be an experience and a conversation piece,â€ he says.
At the Ingrid restaurant and bar, the bathrooms also overlook the entire area, but the fear they inspire stems from an entirely different concept. The glass that Schwartz imported from New York is completely transparent, and from the outside it appears that public bathrooms have reached new possibilities for voyeurism. Once you enter the stall and turn the lock, however, the glass slowly goes opaque and blocks the external view.
â€œPeople sometimes won't go in because they are afraid they will be seen,â€ says Schwartz, â€œbut the bathrooms certainly get a lot of attention, and people come here to see them.â€ For Schwartz, the investment in the bathrooms was worth it for something unique, and people enjoy the entertainment they provide.
At least one bar in Jerusalem, following the Tel Aviv trend, has also taken new concepts in glass and lighting to more creative ends. At Open Bar, the glass of the stalls allows you to see out as you use the restroom, but those outside milling around the bathroom space cannot see you. So, peek-a-boo fans, prepare: The now-you-see-me now-you-don't game you always loved can at last be played even in the toilet. And if you happen to look down as you are relieving yourself rather than out at the crowd outside, you will notice a fluorescent light in the bottom of the porcelain commode turning the water below to shades and hues more common to a stage than the underside of a toilet bowl.
Night venues in Herzliya have also taken up the trend for fancy bathrooms. One bar, appropriately named Frame, installed LCD television screens in their stalls. So if your date gets really boring or you wanted to see the last seconds of the soccer match, the bathroom stall can remedy your troubles.
For even more entertainment and double the trouble, Belgo Bar in Kfar Saba decided to mount two toilets in one stall. â€œPeople like it and they sometimes use it together,â€ says owner Mazalit Kakun of the odd choice for their unisex bathrooms. â€œWe wanted something stylish in the bathroom but without paying so much money for it,â€ she adds.
With two-for-one toilets, waiting for friends to emerge may be a thing of the past at Belgo Bar.
Interior designer Rachel Bar-Noon wanted to capture the rich masculinity of a gentlemen's club and give the bathrooms a â€œwowâ€ factor that would make them tasteful and unforgettable at the Lex night club in Tel Aviv.
Beneath a delicate crystal chandelier, an antique stone drinking fountain stands alone in the center of the bathroom. Flanked on either side by chestnut-colored antique tables, the imposing fountain functions as both a centerpiece and a place where up to three people can wash their hands at one time.
Ro'i Peled, one of the owners of Lex, explains that they deliberately made the bathrooms unisex to encourage a â€œmeeting placeâ€ ambiance with candles, soft light and music.
â€œWhen you come from the bar or the dance area into this room, you feel a different atmosphere immediately,â€ says Peled of the British tea room look the bathrooms evoke. â€œWe wanted people to feel comfortable here, and there is certainly a lot of action throughout the night that takes place in this room.â€
Not everyone feels the intimate act of purification is something that should be shared with the opposite sex.
â€œI don't like the fact that I have to walk into the toilet and see guys waiting in line too,â€ says Ellie Morgan, a marketing manager in Tel Aviv. â€œIt's an opportunity for them to hit on you in a dark place, and all you want to do is wee in peace.â€
Beyond unwanted attention, some women do not appreciate having to share the toilets with men who often lack both hygiene and etiquette, disrespectfully leaving the toilet seat up rather than down after they finish, and sometimes leaving a mess on the rim.
For other women, the luxury and beauty of the bathrooms cannot compensate in any way for the loss of privacy that unisex stalls create.
â€œThe bathroom should be a safe haven, a place where you can take a breather and freshen up by yourself without having to worry about guys watching you in the mirror,â€ says Nirit, a Ra'anana resident who often goes out in Tel Aviv.
â€œI find the unisex bathrooms especially intrusive if I am out on a date and want to take a moment away. I'm always concerned that my date may go to the bathroom at the same time and we'll have an embarrassing meeting in the toilets,â€ she says.
Sharing bathrooms also makes some women uncomfortable because of the aggression they encounter from men who have had a few too many drinks.
â€œI was once lined up for the restroom in a nice orderly British fashion and just as I was about to enter the stall after patiently waiting my turn, a big drunk guy pushed me out of the way and jumped in front of me,â€ says Morgan.
Beyond mild offences such as cutting in line or making unwanted advances, at least two rapes have been reported in night-club bathrooms in Tel Aviv over the last six months one involving the soap opera star Gadi Saban, who was later convicted of sexual assault.
But whether or not unisex bathrooms encourage or discourage physical attacks is a matter of debate. Some people feel safer in mixed company, as they say it might be harder for a crime to go unnoticed with both sexes standing by. Others claim that having males and females together in the bathroom makes it less likely that any wrongdoing will be noticed.
Most men seem to like the opportunity unisex bathrooms afford them to meet women and talk to them in a quieter place, but a few are left unfazed.
â€œI don't really care one way or the other,â€ says Udi, a Tel Aviv resident. â€œI just go there to use the bathroom. It makes no difference to me whether or not women are in line.â€
According to Youval Goldenberg, the architect of Mishmish on Rehov Lillenblum in Tel Aviv, night venue owners have to consider much more than just the social aspects of unisex bathrooms when creating a nice space for the toilets. Three critical demands have to be met: the design itself, the municipal requirements for the bathrooms, and the communal characteristics of the area.
Although the social character of the bathroom is one of the most important elements for owners, meeting increased municipal demands often requires creative solutions as high numbers of sinks and toilets have to be installed in small spaces.
â€œThe unisex bathroom trend that you see all over Tel Aviv is partially a way to solve problems with space,â€ explains Goldenberg. â€œEntrances and exits are easy, but the toilets are a real challenge.â€
Communal sinks are both practical and social. They meet the municipal demands for a specific number of basins without losing much space, and they allow for creative designs and materials.
At Mishmish, the bottle-green tiles on the walls and lavish drapes give the bathrooms a cozy, clean look that Goldenberg wanted to conjure from British members' clubs. â€œThe old public toilets in England often used white and green, and I wanted to create the same feeling with a modern design,â€ he explains.
Perhaps most unusual is the porcelain bathtub that has been transformed into a basin for washing hands. Embedded in a central square block, covered in tile, the antique washing tub is now a contemporary sink. A brass pipe above the tub sprouts multiple faucets that accommodate the cleansing needs of a few people at a time, saving space while stylishly meeting licensing requirements.
Owners and architects often use other tricks with mirrors and lighting in order to enlarge spaces while maintaining high standards of design and fulfilling legal demands.
For Carlos Govino, the owner of Lillenblum 22, covering every wall from top to bottom with mirrors was a way to enhance the space and make it interesting.
Entering the small bathroom as a disco light revolves slowly overhead, its sparkling reflections dancing in the mirrors, is like stepping onto the set of an Orson Welles film gone haywire.
â€œThe mirrors are a fun game for drunk people because they play tricks with light and reflection,â€ says Govino. â€œSome people have even said they've never seen their behind from so many angles all at once!â€ he jokes.
Meitlis also used mirrors in The Dome to create illusions and give people a more advantageous view from every angle. â€œWe put folding mirrors above the urinals on the wall so that people can see what's happening next to them and behind them,â€ explains Meitlis.
Yaron Tal, an interior designer who has worked on projects both in Israel and abroad for the past 13 years, says that designing crazy bathrooms for his clients is part of the competitive game that started about five or six years ago.
â€œPeople notice the toilets now and they pay attention to them, and there are so many tools and materials for designers to use today that the opportunities for creativity are endless,â€ says Tal. â€œSo why not use them?â€
Most night venue owners are using them, and they are prepared to spend the money required to enter the unisex toilet game. The gender-neutral trend may have some people up in arms, convinced that this is just more evidence of the Sodom and Gomorrah era rampant in Tel Aviv, but for the night owls who go out to enjoy the theatrical pulse of the evening, the bathrooms are just one more element of their nocturnal carnival.