The Sex Box Typology: Combining Qualities from the Past

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Opening on August 26, 2013 as a new type of civic-minded public works project, Zurich’s sex boxes have been frequently featured in the news due to the questions the community has raised concerning morality and the sex industry’s place in society. Originating from noble intentions, the sex boxes aim to improve the working conditions of Zurich’s legally registered prostitutes by providing them with a legitimized and systemized work environment. []. Despite its divergence from the conventional, the concept of the sex boxes accomplishes the previously stated goals by extracting and combining architectural details from historically established precedents.  Such precedents include the auto-oriented service and scale of the drive-thru restaurant, the function of the Lowell Mills’ industrial community, and Tokyo’s Yoshiwara red light district’s accessibility and positioning in the urban fabric. Architects combine established typologies with new elements to legitimize controversial new activities or programs.

3 images of white castle's drive thru, the lowell mills, and Yoshiwara painted ladies serve as introduction for the rest of the article
Fast food, industrial complexes, and century-old red light districts contribute specific characteristics to create the unique and completely new sex box typology.

Fast Food: The Drive-thru State of Mind

White Castle, Wichita, Kansas, 1921

In March of 1921, America witnessed the construction of a revolutionary new type of building that would eventually spread beyond its humble origin of Wichita, Kansas. The first White Castle was built by Billy Ingram, an entrepreneur who wanted to grow a new food business in which the food was made rapidly, with cleanliness, and in large quantities [2]. Ingram promised no longer having to wait at a table for a waiter to be able to place an order. One could simply order at the front counter and be presented merely minutes later with a satisfying, personal meal. From there, at their own leisure, the customer could either eat their meal in the restaurant or have it packed to take on the road. This mobile mode of nourishment became known as “fast food.” With the increasing number of American who owned and drove cars, however, the concept of “eating on-the-go” became a staple. People could do their day-to-day jobs and errands faster with cars and American lives began to pick up pace, including their allotted time to eat.  It became imperative that the food industry be tailored to suit the needs of the busy people of early twentieth-century America.

The fast food restaurants from the past and those we see today contain key characteristics of that auto-centered typology. The buildings are small and have limited seating with the assumption that people will either eat quickly or take the food to-go and there is no need for a reservation or appointment. The interior, most often an open room, is arranged with the ordering counter located adjacent to the entrance so it is the first thing the customer sees. The restaurants are most often accessible by car, either through a drive thru window or with a small parking lot located feet from the entrance. The food itself is ready to go when the customer orders and requires little to no preparation. All of the features of the building emphasize the efficient movement of people on-the-go [3].

Although fast food is far removed from prostitution, many of the elements in the sex boxes are similar to those found in White Castle restaurants and similar fast food eateries. As demonstrated by the floor plans of the Icelandic KFC franchise built in 2005, the parallels drawn between the sex boxes and drive-thru restaurants in terms of proportion and functionality become clear. Both buildings offer a limited amount of seating, or in the case of the sex boxes, parking spots. The KFC seats about 30 groups comfortably, and the facility in Zurich only offers nine spots. The restricted volume of both projects infers that the available spots for customers won’t be used for prolonged amounts of time. Just as the fast food industry relies on mass-distribution of product, prostitution is a business, so the more customers the women get, the more money they can make. Multiple, short sessions are more profitable than fewer, longer ones. Just as the fast food customers need not make reservations, the sex box clientele need not make an appointment, but can expect service throughout the night. Similar to the fast food restaurants, “ordering” is the first stop. As the client drives through the facility, the first place they go is to pick up the worker. The sex worker discusses and agrees upon price before proceeding with the client to the sex boxes [1]. These sex boxes have also been called “drive-ins” because of their auto-oriented service [4]. The use of the car is indicative of the fast-food typology as well as in the sex boxes. Just as when a customer orders and is immediately delivered their food, the sex box client does not have to wait for a sex worker to be available. Upon arrival, the client is able to collect the sex worker immediately. It is this immediacy of service and systemized architecture that qualifies the sex box form as a product of the fast food institution.

Comparison of the similar simplicity and streamlined form of the fast food restaurant and the sex boxes
Simplified, systemized program and forms define both the fast food restaurant and the sex boxes.

Industrial Complex: The Workplace Providing For Workers’ Needs

Lowell Mills, Lowell, Massachusetts, 1821

As part of their greater purpose to improve the working conditions of sex workers, the sex boxes are part of a larger facility or complex, much the same as some of the early mill towns in nineteenth-century America. In 1821, the Boston Manufacturing Company began construction on a mill that was the first of its kind in America. Francis Cabot Lowell had created a revolutionary, new form of structure that situated “the textile process of spinning and weaving under one roof” [5].  As well as being a major development in industry, the Lowell Mills also provided a new architectural typology in its function. The girls who worked in the Lowell Mills were expected to work up to fourteen hours a day. It soon became apparent that it would be impossible for these women to travel daily to and from their homes, which were often family-owned farms located in the country. In response, the Boston Manufacturing Company constructed boarding houses for the girls to live in while they worked in the mills. Although the workers didn’t earn very much, they did manage to save up money to send back home to their families, or even in some cases to live on their own [6]. The company recognized that these women had money to spend and built a small company store to accommodate them. In addition to the store and the church that had been erected, the mill began to expand with further support facilities. A small coffee house was built, as well as stables, hotels, an elderly women’s home, several schools, a music hall, a post office, and a bank [7]. The facility began to provide for the workers without them having the need to leave the complex.

Although not every need of the sex workers can be met at the sex box facility in Zurich, some essential amenities are covered.  “[B]athrooms, lockers, small cafe tables, and a laundry and shower” [8] are all available to the women who work there. There is also a detail of security officers on site, ready to help any of the workers if an issue occurs. In each stall of the sex box, there is a panic button that can only be accessed from the passenger side of the car. If the sex worker were to press this, a security officer would respond to the call and make sure she was safe. There are also social workers on site to attend to the mental well being of the workers. Finally, there is a clinic where the women may receive regular testing for STDs and other ailments that would keep them from working and endanger public health. The authorities are hoping that with these services offered at the workplace, prostitutes will be safer and crime and disease will decrease in the surrounding areas [8].

Comparison between workplace complexes that provide extra for their employees
A comparison of the Lowell Mill industrial community and the Sex Box complex.

Red Light District: Sanctioning a Public Place for a Private Act

Yoshiwara District, Tokyo Japan, 1660

The selling of one’s body is not a new practice. There is evidence that prostitution has been taking place since the eighteenth-century BCE in Mesopotamia [9]. Although it is a common practice worldwide, prostitution is still viewed unfavorably by the public. Location becomes critical when trying to integrate a disputed program into the urban fabric. Cities often develop what is known as a “red light district”, or a place where prostitutes are known to work. In 1956, the passing of a new law in Japan caused a three hundred year old red light district to be shut down. The district of Yoshiwara, while also known for its spectacular entertainment and artistic culture, had been infamous for prostitution since 1660. A temple still remains where 20,000 women employed in the sex industry were buried over the years [10]. Prostitution was widespread in Japan in the seventeenth-century. In an attempt to remove prostitution from the residential and commercial areas of Japan, the Tokugawa Shogunate designated several areas where prostitution would be allowed to occur. These districts were walled and guarded so as to control the flow of visitors and to confine the women whose contracts bound them to their work. Many of the girls bound by these contracts had been sold to the brothels by their families between the ages of seven and twelve [11]. Many of the girls working in the brothels died from disease before their contracts were up. Others simply accumulated too much debt and had to continue to work for the brothel until their contracts expired. The women were poorly cared for and many died before they were twenty-one [12].

The government in Zurich was also concerned about their red light district, a portion of neighborhood on the riverfront called Sihlquai [1]. Citizens regularly complained about seeing evidence, as well as acts of prostitution on their property and in close proximity to their families. Since the sex trade is not illegal, government officials had to find a place for these prostitutes to practice their work out of the public eye. In a response similar to that of the Shogunate in 1660, Zurich’s city officials created the sex boxes in an old industrial area away from residences and urban density. The area is gated and only certain people are allowed in just as in Yoshiwara. This, however, is where the similarities end. Although only certain people are allowed in, nothing binds the prostitutes to the sex box facility, and they are allowed to leave at any time. The sale of a human being in any form of slavery is internationally illegal [13]. The sex box prostitutes are not fulfilling a contract or bound to the location in any form. They are self-employed and must simply register their professional status with the government. The government has also taken a proactive step to stopping the spread of diseases, such as those that caused the death of so many women in Yoshiwara. Not only do the women in Zurich have to be screened for diseases in order to be licensed, signage also is posted throughout the sex box facility that enjoins using condoms to have safe sex [4]. The government is hoping that the measures that are being taken will improve the livelihood of the women working in the sex industry today.

Side-by-side maps comparing Yoshiwara then and Zurich now.
The image above compares a map of Yoshiwara in the 1800s (left) and a map of Zurich now (right). The city centers are highlighted in blue and the areas of prostitution are in yellow.

Although sex boxes require their own unique classification within the realm of twenty-first century architecture, their major, defining elements have been taken from several integral typologies of the past. From the fast food industry of the current century, the mills of the Industrial Revolution, and the red light districts of the past, the sex boxes use elements of form, functionality, programming, accessibility, location, and positioning within an urban setting to create their own order. As of now, Zurich’s sex boxes show promise. If the sex box complex continues to take after its innovative and revolutionary predecessors, it may yet become a more common formal addition to the architectural typologies familiar to us now.



[1] Wynick, Alex. “Drive-in SEX BOXES open in Zurich to reduce street prostitution and make sex trade safer.” Mirror, August 26, 2013. (accessed October 21, 2013).

[2] White Castle Management Co. “Timeline.” Accessed October 13, 2013.

[3] Wikipedia, “Fast food restaurant.” Last modified October 12, 2013. Accessed October 21, 2013.

[4] Foulkes, Imogen. “BBC News Europe.” Zurich introduces ‘drive-in’ sex. . (accessed October 21, 2013).

[5] Wikipedia, “Lowell mills.” Last modified October 16, 2013. Accessed October 21, 2013.

[6] Wikipedia, “Lowell Mill Girls.” Last modified October 3, 2013. Accessed October 21, 2013.

[7] Map of Lowell Mills Complex. Accessed October 6, 2013.

[8] “Swiss try drive-in ‘sex boxes’ for safer prostitution.” USA Today. . (accessed October 21, 2013).

[9] Wikipedia, “Prostitution .” Last modified October 19, 2013. Accessed October 21, 2013.

[10] Milner, Rebecca.“Yoshiwara: 300 Years as Tokyo’s Biggest Red Light District.” CNN Travel, April 4, 2011. Accessed October 13, 2013.

[11] Wikipedia contributors, “Prostitution in Japan.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. (accessed October 13, 2013).

[12] Wikipedia contributors. “Yoshiwara.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. (accessed October 13, 2013).

[13] Wikipedia, “Prostitution in Europe.” Last modified October 19, 2013. Accessed October 21, 2013.

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