Zurich’s ‘Sex Boxes’

Article first published in Building Design, August 2013. For more on BD, and how to subscribe, go to http://www.bdonline.co.uk 


There was much chortling this week at the opening of Zurich’s scheme for rehabilitating street prostitution via so-called “sex boxes”. Reported by the global media, the scheme is a practical approach to a real problem: street prostitution in the Sihlquai neighbourhood, which had reached uncontrollable proportions, with attendant problems of waste. Residents were used to finding prostitutes and clients using their gardens as public toilets.

The trial solution is neat. On a bit of railway land, 2km west of the city centre, social services have built a terrace of wooden drive-in huts. The design is superbly restrained Swiss-minimalist-modernist. Think Peter Zumthor with condoms.

It’s all very decently landscaped, and at night is lit up with an appealing red/green colour scheme. The cabins are open at one end, so there is no real privacy, but it’s a good deal more luxurious than the street practice it replaces. It’s also safer: each hut is equipped with a panic button, and social services are close at hand.

The world’s media were fascinated not only by the fact that the sex boxes existed at all, but by the overt (and stereotypically Swiss) regulation. No cameras or phones, big signs exhorting the use of condoms, and a strict 30-minute time limit.

It’s all beautifully explained in pictograms. Initial reactions seemed good. When it opened at 7pm Zurich time on Monday, there was plenty of trade. The only complaint the clients had was about poor signage, though the place did already show up on satnav devices. And the streetwalkers in Sihlquai seemed to have disappeared.

Could it happen in Britain? No. There are awkward questions about the origins of the women and their conditions of work, not to mention the reasons for the project in the first place, responding more to the sensibilities of the burghers of Zurich than to the largely powerless sex workers.

Put those things aside, though, and there is something attractively honest about this. It makes sex a part of everyday life rather than hiding it away. Why not adapt it for the rest of us, struggling to find time and space for intimacy? Dress it up a bit, and fit a door. Rent by the hour. Sex pods for all!


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