Berlin's Historic Temples of Ease
By Mark Orwoll
On a recent visit to Berlin I was impressed with a renovated open-air urinal next to the French Cathedral in the Gendarmenmarkt, arguably the most beautiful square in the capital. The location is fitting, as this particular pissoir (the Germans have adopted the French word) is arguably the most beautiful one of its kind in Berlin. Built of steel and painted a traditional hunter green, the Gendarmenmarkt public convenience is sturdy without being merely utilitarian. The building's eight-sided construction, stamped with shell-and-flower medallions, is another traditional feature, giving rise to the generic nickname Café Achtek, or Café Octagon. The ornate cupola, with its horizontal grillwork, is a practical venting system that is also aesthetically pleasing. The paravan, which screens the doorway and gives privacy to those entering and leaving, is topped with lanterns that would be equally at home in the courtyard of a stately manor.
The Gendarmenmarkt lavatory is unusual in that it serves both genders; most others are for gents only. (Important note to non-German speakers: Damen does not mean "the men," nor does Herren mean "for her.") There's an excellent collection of photographs of Berlin's historic public urinals here.
Sadly, a growing number of 19th-century Café Achteks have been gated or fenced and left to rust. In their place you will find a new, modern species of comfort stations. Many of them have advertising and self-sanitizing facilities. Some of them charge a fee of about 75 cents, so be prepared to carry some change with you. Their doors lock. Many people consider these new-style garderobes an improvement, but more improvements often mean more things that need fixing. There is a modern one on the far side of the French Cathedral, for instance; a recent visitor found that it was closed for repairs. The antique one, however, was open for business, as it probably is at this very moment. It is free, it is clean, it is handsomely designed, and it is nearly always available. It is, in a word, civilized.
Mark Orwoll is a senior consulting editor at Travel + Leisure.
Photo by Mark Orwoll