New design for SF’s public toilets is sleek, shiny and modern
By John King
Updated 6:07 pm, Monday, June 11, 2018
It’s take two for San Francisco’s public toilets 2.0, with a proposed design that would replace the current mock-Parisian models with bulbous metallic orbs that could be topped by plants or shrubs.
The concept is a sleek, shiny counterpart to the forest-green art nouveaux toilets that have been on city streets since the mid-1980s. But the conceptual design announced Monday by the Department of Public Works also is a change from the boxy, gray modern look that went through several rounds of public review last year.
“We went back to the drawing board” after the proposed update got ran into criticism, said Mohammed Nuru, director of Public Works. This included a tepid reaction from the Historic Preservation Commission — not because the modern makeover was too modern, but because it had all the finesse of a utility box.
The department responded by holding a private competition where 12 local architecture firms were asked to submit design schemes. A jury that included bureaucrats and practitioners whittled down the entries to three finalists. After another round of design submissions, the jury selected the San Francisco office of SmithGroupJJR.
The winning concept consists of a simple but adaptable tube with curved walls of reflective metal and a flat top that could hold plants, shrubs — theoretically even a tree. Ideally, the concept also “tells a story of sustainability and conservation” by recycling the water used to wash your hands — perhaps by irrigating the plants up high.
“The big idea is to combine sculpture and technology,” said Bill Katz, a design principal at SmithGroupJJR. “We want an object that literally reflects the surroundings and the neighborhoods that it is in, but also will be forward-looking.”
While the emphasis on clean 21st century design captured the imagination of the design jury, the makeover ultimately must be approved by the Board of Supervisors. Along the way there’s sure to be scrutiny from design watchdogs who are happy with the traditional-looking kiosks and loos installed back in the 1980s, when contemporary architecture was out of vogue.
“Pity we lean toward ‘modern,’ which has a shelf life, as opposed to classic, which is timeless,” Darcy Brown, executive director of San Francisco Beautiful, said yesterday. Her group was an opponent of last fall’s design.
The most important gauges of a public toilet’s success, of course, are whether they are used by the public and whether they work from one day to the next. SmithGroupJJR will now work with the company that installs the toilets, JCDecaux, to adapt the winning scheme to the realities of construction and maintenance.
The goal is to do this fairly rapidly, so that a full set of designs and renderings can be presented this summer to a joint hearing of the San Francisco Arts Commission and the Historic Preservation Commission.
This will also include designs for the advertising kiosks that Decaux is allowed to operate in order to raise money to install and maintain the toilets. At present there are 28 public toilets and 114 kiosks in the program, most of them in downtown neighborhoods.
John King is The San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic.