Developed cities around the world go to great lengths to hide their waste and sewage systems from view by hiding treatment plants in the urban periphery. In a bid to break down boundaries between “clean” and “dirty” spaces, New York City-based Canadian designer Liyang Zhang created Geographies of Urban Filth, a thesis project that proposes the transformation of the North Toronto Wastewater Treatment Plant into an unconventional urban destination with public baths.

rendering of contained water in treatment plant

Winner of Azure Magazine’s 2019 A+ Student Award, the Geographies of Urban Filth is the thesis project Zhang worked on while pursuing a Master of Architecture at Ontario’s University of Waterloo.

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rendering of people looking at water in treatment plant

“The thesis studies how our cultural understanding of dirt and cleanliness are bound to issues of class and race and how they are manifested within urban and spatial design,” Zhang said in a project statement. “Boundaries are formed between clean and dirty, familiar and foreign, us and them, through the rejection of matter that is disturbing or threatening to us. The design proposes the breaking down of boundaries between perceived ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ spatial and social constructs with the insertion of a public space and bath within the wastewater treatment facility.”

rendering of public baths

Located near three physically and socially disconnected neighborhoods of mixed income levels and ethnic groups, the North Toronto Wastewater treatment plant served as the perfect vehicle for Zhang’s thesis. The treatment plant’s hidden location within the Don Valley ravine and connection to the sewers evoke a “dirty” image that seems at odds with Toronto’s “clean” image. The unusual insertion of a public bath inside the treatment plant would help bring “us in touch with the rejected ‘other’ within the city and within ourselves,” Zhang said.

rendering of people walking near round structures

Zhang envisioned the wastewater treatment plant as a multifunctional venue with space not only for bathing but for swimming and events as well. The designer embraced the existing brutalist architecture and proposed few modifications, from the adaptive reuse of decommissioned digester tanks into an arts and performance venue to the concrete volumes that house the changing rooms and showering facilities. Filtered wastewater would be used for showering and cycled back into the treatment plant for re-filtering before entering the wetland swimming pools and a subterranean pool.

+ Liyang Zhang

Images via Liyang Zhang