I hadn’t thought about shit until very recently, which is strange, because in 32 years I have shat five tons across three continents—the weight of a blue whale—and because now I live in San Francisco’s District 6. When I leave the house, I pick my way between mounds of human feces. Thirty shits pile up in an alley down the road from our draughty warehouse before the city comes by to clean them up. In winter, the shits gather a slight shimmer of ice crystals. In summer, they attract hovering, misty clouds of delicate flies. The window of my desk looks out over the street. A couple of times a day, I hear the plosive fuck of someone who has stepped in it.
San Francisco at the height of the second tech boom is a city in a shit storm, and District 6 squats in its eye, from the flat lands of the once-industrial South of Market Area to the steep lurch of the Tenderloin. The district is home to tech giants: Twitter, Zynga, Airbnb, Pinterest. Apartments in one of the new buildings going up a few blocks away from my house will set the baby-faced billionaires of Silicon Valley back two thousand dollars per square foot.
District Six is also home to the homeless. Every night, over half of the city’s six thousand homeless are squeezed into the few square kilometers outside my front door, where there are just six 24-hour public toilets.
The toilets of District 6 are Sanisettes: fortified metal monoliths designed by the French advertising company JC Decaux. Which is where the strangeness begins. The story of how humans shit communally is as circular and weird as the process itself.
When I arrived in San Francisco back in 2010, the Sanisette at Civic Centre was the first thing I saw as I climbed the stairs out of the train station.
Sacks of skin were crashed out against the Sanisette’s chilly walls, breathing lightly. The conscious drifted back and forwards across the plaza’s expanse, waiting for its door to open, which it did every twenty minutes when the automatic timer went off. Couples stumbled in and out, groaning, to deal or to fuck, maybe even to defecate, but most likely not. In interviews with the local news, the homeless complain over and over that the Sanisette is the last place in the world you’d want to go to shit: that it’s for prostitutes, for junkies, that it’s inhuman. When a non-profit provided porta-potties in District 6 in January of 2015, Mischa Fisher, a 49-year-old homeless woman, told a reporter from the LA Times that she would never use the Sanisettes. She was so grateful for the non-profit’s porta-potties that she went to them daily to help the staff clean them and care of them. “This is the jungle,” Fisher told the reporter, gesturing to the streets of District Six. The porta-potties were an escape, an oasis of calm civilization in the madness. The Sanisettes just down the road were portals to hell.
JC Decaux, builder of the ill-fated Sanisette, one of the worst-designed loos in history, is also the very company responsible for building the first public toilet that I have a clear memory of using.
I first stepped into the Sanisette in Paris, in 1991. Twenty-five years ago, the Sanisette was a public toilet of the future—an immaculate, gleaming chamber that played Madonna while you peed. The Berlin Wall had been down for two years, the Cold War was over, and triumphant American hawks were proclaiming that there would be no more conflicts, only a great mopping up into a single, glorious human mess.
None of this mattered to me, because I was seven years old, I needed to poo, and in the great, civilized boulevards of Paris not one café would let me—or my broke parents—use the bathroom. Most Parisian eateries had toilets with locks on them; customers were given tokens, but the public was also welcome to use them for a few francs. The waiters in the gilded establishments that day, however, insisted that we buy first, shit later. At the time, my parents made us popcorn at home and smuggled it into the movies in paper bags to save cash. We lived out of suitcases and sleeping bags. A coffee in one of those cafes cost the price of a small Australian town.
We walked the windy boulevards, looking for another option. I was panicking, the pressure building. I felt the first hot leak. I told myself I wouldn’t do it like we had in other cities, hanging over the gutters between the cars while my dad stood guard.
My dad, an avid photographer, believed two things about traveling: firstly, that it was important to piss on the ground to mark your territory, and secondly, that photographing his children pissing on the ground all over Europe was a great way to create lasting family memories.
Flipping through photo albums of the time my family spent on the road is long one blink of bared bottoms getting bigger: here is my brother, three years old, pissing off a precipice in Provence, against a wall in Barcelona, four, off a beached dingy on the Mediterranean shore, five, spraying down cow pats in a soggy field in freezing Wales. And here I am, squatting in a field of poppies where the Anzacs once fought, or pulling a face in the corner of an abandoned Italian farmhouse, pee leaking out across the cobbles.
By the time I was seven, I was beginning to realize that while Dad would forever find peeing funny, I would not. I was too adult, and dropping a number two in the gutter between the fancy Parisian cars and chic scooters was out of the question. The shame, I knew, would kill me.
Just in time, the Sanisette reared up in front of us—a tall silver capsule with no clear edges. My parents struggled to translate the reams of instructions on its gleaming panels. They slotted in a couple of francs. The curved doors opened with a sigh. I rushed onto a floor still wet with the fragrant kiss of cleaning products, and banged the button to close the door. Privacy and relief were in my grasp.
At the last moment, as the door of the Sanisette slid closed, Mum jammed her foot in the way.
“It could kill you!” she hollered.
The Sanisette’s cleaning cycle is weight-triggered. If the door closes and the unit can’t sense anyone’s presence, it sprays itself down with pungent chemicals.
I didn’t want my parents in the claustrophobic future capsule with me, but Mum won. She stood inside the Sanisette while I shat. My mum was a fully-grown adult, she weighed enough to keep Madonna singing Holiday softly through the metal grates, to stop the ground from flipping and the bleach from raining down while I became even lighter and the lights stayed on. I sat there, longing to be grown up, too.
It was one of the million small humiliations of childhood. When you’re a kid, you think that all adults are equally powerful: that more dignity will be acquired with each passing day. One day, you will be respected. Things get better, we’re told. It’s the natural order of things.
Twenty-one years later, I moved to San Francisco. I dragged my suitcase up the stairs and into the middle of the red brick plaza at Civic Centre. Here I am, a grown-up in the global superpower, I told myself as I stood in the lonely, windswept space. Starship Headquarters, Silicon Valley. The UN Charter of 1945 was signed meters from where I stand. The Treaty of Peace with Japan was inked right here. Here we go. This is going to be great.
Pieces of toilet paper cartwheeled over the bricks.
On the far side of the plaza, the lone dark monolith crouched against the cold. It took me a moment to realize that it was the Sanisette.
The Sanisette of San Francisco in 2010, was not the Sanisette of Paris in 1991. Its colors had changed, for a start. It was military green against the fog. It didn’t want to be seen. It didn’t have to be seen: it could be smelled. The Sanisette could no longer clean itself, if it ever could. The most hopeless of the homeless drifted around it, waiting, fighting. I rolled my suitcase past, saw a single turd had been neatly deposited against the closed door. In the distance, a couple of cops patrolled, moving people along in the endless, pointless cat and mouse of the San Francisco streets.
As my months and years in the city passed, I became obsessed with the Sanisette—with how we shit when we are most needy, and the grace accorded to it. I’ve lived in developing countries like Indonesia, taken regular Sunday strolls through slums along open drains next to Chanel stores, but San Francisco can feel more hopeless, more divided than Jakarta. I came to think of how I live now—picking my way between the piles of human feces on the pavement—as an American problem.
Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Gardez l’eau, watch the water. Dunny, throne, big white phone. Hopper, lavvy, long drop, last stop.
In the San Francisco Public Library, where the toilet doors are left hanging a few centimeters away from their frames so that staff have a clear line of sight into each cubicle and can make sure no one is shooting up or napping in the fruity warmth, there is only one book on the history of toilets.
Written in 1961, Clean and Decent: The Fascinating History of the Bathroom and the Watercloset and of sundry Habits, Fashions and Accessories of THE TOILET principally in GREAT BRITAIN, FRANCE AND AMERICA by Lawrence Wright M.A., B.ARCH., A.R.I.B., 1961, is indeed fascinating, if a little mad and outdated. In his opinion, nothing particularly modern or of interest occurred in lavatory design after 1910. Of course, he can be forgiven, writing as he was three decades pre-Sanisette.
In the lone toilet tome, esteemed author Mr. Lawrence Wright M.A., B.ARCH., A.R.I.B., writes that “the tale of the tub cannot be neatly parceled into periods and tidily labeled with dates.”
Wright is right: humans have discovered and lost toilets throughout the millennia. The story of our relationship with our shit is not linear. Like growing up, we love to think the history of technology and civilization as a triumphant forward march, but the reality is much messier. Humanity’s inventiveness is matched only by its enormous facility for forgetting.
Because each new generation assumes itself to be at the most advanced point in the history of technology, archeologists of every age are shocked when they discover the past has outstripped them.
In ancient Greece, it was said that the city of Knossos was built by the great inventor Daedalus, he of the mythic wax wings, the labyrinth and, as a matter of fact, the loo. When the digs began on the real city of Knossos in 1900, the snotty English archeologists behind the spades were flummoxed to find there really were remnants of flush toilets and sewerage systems in the dirt of the bronze-age city. Westminster Palace itself had floated on top of dozens of overflowing cesspits until just fifty years earlier. Due, in part, to the recent introduction of flush toilets combined with inadequate plumbing to support them, the Thames River had been choked with shit. Westminster Palace’s cesspits overflowed so badly during “The Great Stink” of 1958 that parliament itself was forced to stop; the Hansards are full of complaints. Henry Austin, the Consulting Engineer for the Metropolitan Commission for Sewers at the time, described the cesspits below the Palace as full of foul liquids and noxious gasses that were “bubbling and hissing from the surface as if a great fire were below.” Actual great fires and methane explosions were common across London. And there, in the digs of Knossos, the chagrined archeologists of 1900 uncovered a full, ancient sewer system more sophisticated than their own had been just a generation before.
Likewise in 2003, archeologists at Ness of Brodgar in the Orkney Islands off the northern tip of Scotland were astonished to find that stone-age farmers had drains five thousand years ago. Most academics assumed stone-age culture was without decoration or sophistication. But the meeting halls of Ness of Brodgar have roofs of stone, painted and decorated interiors, and above all they are plumbed—a technological trick that will then be forgotten again in that part of Europe for thousands of years. Well into the 1940s, a few miles from Ness of Brodgar’s drains, modern Scots were still emptying chamber pots out of their windows and hollering.
And so it goes, with plumbed toilets making triumphant cameos throughout the centuries—in Harappa in Pakistan in 2000 BCE, in Crete, in Egypt. From the moment we began shitting in streams, we have been obsessed with the idea that our waste can be taken “away.” (Of course, as the stinky rivers soon remind us, away is a complicated place.)
Nothing beats the Romans when you go in search of lost toilets. The great drains that ran beneath the streets of the Roman Empire were guarded by Cloacina—an aspect of the Goddess Venus, deity of love, sex, prosperity and desire. In 400 AD, Rome was a city of flowing waters fed by thirteen great aqueducts. Miles of underground pipes carried the waters in to 1352 public fountains and cisterns, hundreds of public toilets, and 11 great public bathhouses that were free and open to all citizens, the greatest of which was Caracalla.
For 300 years, the bathhouse of Caracalla stood, 1100 square feet of hot, cold and gurgles, surrounded by gardens and libraries. Then, in 600 AD, the Ostrogoths came, sacked the city, smashed the hydraulics, and fucked it all up. Fifteen hundred years of fecal dark ages followed in Europe. Cholera, pestilence, and plagues.
The cesspits which caused such havoc in Westminster in the 1850s began their lives mainly in castles and monasteries through the dark ages. The garderobes in medieval European castles were the most developed toilets on the continent for an age. Stacked one floor on top of the next, the toilets were neatly positioned so that everyone could shit into the same chute, letting it run down the walls and into the open cesspits below, the contents of which were then emptied and moved elsewhere.
Private citizens at the time were not on board with the classy idea of “away”, and were far more likely to simply empty their shit into the street. ‘Gardez-l’eau’ or ‘watch the water’ was what the French called as they pitched their shit from the windows—a cry which also gave us the slang word ‘loo.’ In the 1930s and 40s, the Scots who were emptying their chamber pots a few miles away from the ancient plumbing of Ness of Brodgar corrupted ‘gardez-l’eau’ into ‘gardy-loo’ and so: ‘going to the loo.’
As cities grew, the common practice of emptying chamber pots into the street or nearby waterways became intolerable. By the 1600s, cesspits were ubiquitous in Europe. Lined with bricks or slabs of stone in an attempt to prevent leakage into the water table, cesspits needed to be emptied fairly constantly. In the 1840s, one French hygienist estimated that there were over thirty thousand cesspits in Paris alone. Twenty years later during London’s Great Stink, the number there was estimated to be closer to two-hundred thousand. While most cesspits have been excavated from modern cities, they still litter the rural landscape. Once every couple of years the thin membrane of soil over a fetid opening will collapse, swallowing an unsuspecting hiker. (If the delighted local newspapers are to be believed, this seems to happen most frequently in America.)
The water-based toilet with a glamorous new flush was reinvented, long after its loss at Caracalla, by a witty, lascivious lord in Queen Elizabeth’s court. Sir John Harington describes his toilet in minute detail, along with building instructions, in his 1556 treatise A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax. After being banished from the court for lewdness, Harington wrote the mock literary work under a pseudonym. In it, he uses the most base and lowly of bodily functions to lampoon all the scandals, controversies, and hypocrisies of England at the time, with its public moralizing and private filth.
Harington opens his treatise in high literary style with the story of the Greek hero Ajax, who is in the midst of a crazed rage because the gods have given Achilles’ magical armor to Odysseus. To stop Ajax from killing Odysseus and stealing the armor away for himself, the goddess Athena steps in, clouding Ajax’s mind and vision. Instead of killing his friend, Ajax storms into a field, slaughtering herds of sheep. When he comes to and realizes what his rage and selfishness has turned him into, Ajax kills himself in despair. Where his blood hits the field, red hyacinths bloom.
In Harington’s telling of the Ajax myth, the years pass until, in Victorian England, the lord who now owns the field orders his servant to mow down the field of red hyacinths. The grasses—and flowers—are then to be placed in a toilet, for people to wipe their bums with. The servant protests that the field is sacred, but his lord doesn’t listen.
The field is mowed, and when the lord wipes his arse with the flowers, it bleeds. He becomes gravely ill with a plague, and is forced to travel far and wide across distant lands in search of a cure. On his return, he builds a palace of a toilet, a beautiful place worthy of an apology to Ajax, the strong. (Five points to those who have already picked up the ‘Ajax/A Jakes’ alliteration.)
Harington goes on, piling story on allusion, page after page, and then, in the middle of the angry ranting and literary lambasting, there it is: the first description of how to build a water-based toilet in two thousand years. It is detailed, drawn with a keen engineer’s mind, and folded neatly into a piece of social commentary so complicated and bizarre that academics are still wrangling over its meaning today. “Pride comes before a torn bottom” seems to be the main theme of the work, but there are also allusions to the importance of the commons in the form of the once beautiful field, the impossibility of learning from past mistakes, and Harington’s suspicion that answers to the problems of plumbing might be found in faraway cultures.
Harington built two flush toilets using the method he describes in A New Discourse of a Stale Subject—one in his own castle, and one in Queen Elizabeth’s, after she finally forgave him. But it took two more reinventions over two hundred years later for the flushing toilet model to take off.
The modern toilet was unfortunately not invented by a plumber named Thomas Crapper; the story is delicious, but apocryphal. Unlike other points in the history of the toilet where words and shit segue neatly, it turns out that the slang word ‘Crap’ probably came into English before Mister Thomas Crapper. In Danish, krappen means ‘to pluck off, cut off, or separate’, and the Old French crappe refers to ‘siftings, waste or rejected matter.’
Crapper did invent the ballcock, the pivoting arm with a float attached which opens the valve to fill the cistern when the water level drops as you flush. He also worked hard as a lobbyist and educator to get toilets into houses in the mid-1880s. But in the long nomenclature of the loo, Thomas Crapper was just lucky to be born into a family of plumbers already in the great plucking, separating and sifting business.
The first patent on a flushing toilet was in fact taken out in 1775, over half a century before Crapper’s birth, by the Scottish watchmaker Alexander Cummings. Cummings invented the S-bend still used in toilets today to stop our gases from escaping into the house. With a couple of tweaks from plumber Joseph Bramah two years later, ‘water closets’ began to spread across the country, and then across the continent. We became more efficient than we had ever been at taking out waste into the great away. By the early 1900s we were flushing it all the way into the ocean.
The flush toilet might seem like a trivial improvement, but in 1775 it was part of a sanitation revolution. Before the mid 1800s, we believed that disease was caused by ‘miasma’ or bad air. Given the overwhelming smell of those shitty cities, it seems a pretty sound assumption. Germ-based theories of diseases had been proposed since the 1500s, but no one took them seriously. By the mid-1800s, it was all the rage. In 1847, the Hungarian obstetrician Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis even discovered that simply by making his doctors wash their hands, he could reduce maternal mortality from 18% to 2.2%. (The whole hand-washing business we now take for granted in toilets took a couple of decades to catch on completely in the 1800s when germ theory was new. Poor old Ignaz was so publicly derided by the old miasma establishment when he first published his findings that he ended up developing a nervous condition from shame, going insane, and then being committed to an asylum where he was beaten to death by guards at the age of 47. The road to scientific discovery is paved with the Ignaz Semmelweis’s of the world.)
As hygiene improved and the death rate fell, human populations ballooned. A century of innovation and change opened with the swish of a cistern. The 1800s were a time of optimism and invention (except for Ignaz). More people meant more toilets, more travel, more inventions, more everything, or so it seemed.
Six million curious souls flocked to the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1858. In London’s Hyde Park, engineers and architects erected a Crystal Palace, its triumphant glass ceilings arching 39 meters high. Inside its sparkling halls, fourteen thousand exhibitors displayed the wonders of the world. Charles Dickens was there. Lewis Carroll and Charlotte Bronte strode the floors, gazing at the diamonds and voting machines. Charles Darwin hurried past. If Darwin had been looking for a toilet, he could have gone with ease.
In the Crystal Palace, for the Great Exhibition, the first public restrooms to afford people any sort of dignity since Rome had been proudly erected to much public fanfare. Darwin, Dickens, or the girl next door could all pay a penny for a clean seat, a towel, a comb and a shoeshine.
“The Civilization of a People” wrote George Jennings, the builder of the Crystal Palace’s public restrooms, “can be measured by their Domestic and Sanitary appliances and although my proposition may be startling I am convinced the day will come when Halting Stations replete with every convenience will be constructed in all localities where numbers assemble.”
The global population in 1857 as Darwin peed into the Crystal Palace’s Halting Station was around 1.4 billion.
Today, we are 7.1 billion.
In San Francisco’s District Six, the Twitter building looms high over Market St. One hundred and eighty millionaires were minted between its walls overnight when the company launched on the public market in 2013. Below the bluebird, thousands of homeless bunk up in the shit-smeared streets, and the six Sanisettes crouch on the curb, doors closed against the night.
This is the center of Empire. San Francisco is the new Rome. But water, the ocean and “away” are a problem. California is years into the worst drought in its history—a drought that is turning the Central Valley into a dust bowl of ghost homes and abandoned farms as the state switches the water off in town after town.
The city of San Francisco is desperate, however. While the rest of the state struggles for water to drink and grow food with, here in the heart of the new Rome we steam clean the streets of District Six, blasting six thousand gallons through the fetid alleys every month, to peel the poo off the pavement.
Street shits come in a variety of exciting forms: the long smear; the exciting present between parked cars; the corner wriggler; the festive poop. On New Year’s Day, 2016, I nearly tripped over a hipster who stopped abruptly in front of me to photograph a gaudy, show-off shit that had collected a fancy coat of glitter.
Then, of course, there’s my personal favorite: the plastic bag banger, which pops like a depth bomb under your heels. The plastic membrane means the shit doesn’t dissolve unless you accidentally burst it. Instead, the plastic bag washes into the sewers on Tuesday nights when the cleaners come rumbling down our street.
San Francisco is better than most of the world when it comes to storm water drains, and water treatment in general. Many cities simply wash their sewerage into the closest body of water, and always have. In the late 1880s, New York harbor was famous all over the world for its oysters. By 1910, the harbor was an underwater desert. Even today, New York still releases 27 billion gallons of untreated sewage into the harbor every year when storm water floods the old drains. Locals are trying to reestablish the oyster population once more, but I’m not sure I’d want to eat one.
Storm water is also an issue; most cities in the world simply wash their streets straight into the ocean, picking up car oil, stray turds and exciting detritus. San Francisco treats most of its storm water thanks to decades of work from local activists like Save The Bay, but a good swathe of the cities around the San Francisco Bay still have no storm water management laws at all. Walking the Bay’s edge, you get glimpses of the plastic bags of shit bobbing merrily on the surface of the water.
It took me a while to understand the plastic bags; that they’re a sign of human dignity and neighborly respect. The truly broken shit straight into the streets of the South of Market. But our neighbors choose plastic bags instead, tie knots in their tops and leave them hidden behind tires in the gutter. The very thinnest membrane of away they can afford to create as they squat, cold and ashamed, in the gutter of our street.
A couple of months ago, two women in bright yellow work vests and orange jumpsuits set up shop out the front of the Sanisette on the Civic Center Plaza. They had clipboards and workstations packed with brooms and mops and bleach. After each person entered the Sanisette, the women cleaned the toilet up again, marked it on their clipboard. The attendants stood and ticked, wiped, sprayed and buff. The self-cleaning units were assiduously cleaned.
Slowly, with all that human attention and polishing, the six lonely Sanisettes in District Six began to sparkle.
The woman responsible for the new ‘Pit Stop’ program that is cleaning up the self-cleaning toilets is our local District is Supervisor Jane Kim—a New Yorker of Korean descent who has posters for local hip-hop concerts and book fairs in honor of Howard Zinn on the walls of her office in City Hall.
My online neighborhood bulletin boards are full of anti-homeless bile about undesirables being ‘dumped’ in the area. In late September one post complaining about shit on the street next door ballooned into an abusive fight. “If you are going to live in SOMA, you just have to learn to accept getting robbed, walking in poop,” proclaimed one post. “I hope we can all be long gone before the poop turns into a river.” “Walking to the gym by Twitter is like running the gauntlet amidst garbage and drug dealers,” said another. “If Jane Kim is not responsive, it's time to oust her.”
Supervisor Kim looks exhausted when I go to talk to her about the shit in the streets, but I can feel the power of her personality in the polished way she focuses all of her attention on me, as if I’m the one being interviewed. I want her to say that yes, this is an American problem, or tell me stories about the first people she ever saw shitting in public, but she won’t play my game. Talking with Supervisor Kim is like coming face to face with the next generation of Sanisettes, which were rolled out into the streets of Paris a couple of years ago. (Parisians, unlike San Franciscans, simply redesign their city when they realize things aren’t working.) The new Sanisettes are all clean lines, perfectly shiny, and intimidatingly classy. They don’t give anything away. They say: welcome to Paris, we are working hard at being le cool, you know? The San Francisco Sanisettes, on the other hand, scream at you: face the pain.
It’s taken Supervisor Kim years to get the Pit Stop program off the ground. Even something as basic as keeping a couple of toilets clean and open is a bureaucratic nightmare in this embattled city. She’s smooth as silk though, and sticks to her line: she’s proud of what they’ve achieved. As I’m leaving her office after my twenty minutes, I ask her what it feels like to be the Supervisor with the shit problem. “It feels good to be able to do something that everyone is behind,” she says brightly. Then she shakes herself, puts on her fierce face. “But this is primarily a housing issue. I represent the poorest and the richest constituents in the city.”
Walking down the polished stone steps of city hall, I remembered how at the end of the LA Times interview about non-profit porta-potty programs in the Tenderloin in 2015, the homeless woman Fisher had dropped a weird comment. She had said she also uses the toilets “to pray.” In District Six, which generates tens of millions of dollars a day, there was a woman who was moved to prayer by a clean porta-potty.
And that is the weird thing about the Sanisettes in San Francisco.
Broken down, messed up, non-functional, they showed us what was really going on. They didn’t take the shit away, they let it accumulate. They drew your mind to the miles of drains underfoot, to the bobbing bags in the ocean, to the fact that fifty years after traveling to the moon, we still can’t work out how to shit safely on earth. What would George Jennings, standing at the front of his Halting Stations in the Crystal Palace, think of the state of the Civilization of our People?
I stop by the Sanisette out the front of City Hall for a chat to one of the lady attendants on my way home.
“What’s the night shift like? Pretty hairy?”
“Oh,” she says. “We aren’t open at night. These don’t open at night anymore.”
District 6 has gone from having six unusable overnight toilets, to none at all.
Every year, as the city gentrifies, thousands of homeless are pushed into the few square kilometers of District Six, the only place that still has pockets of industrial wastelands where they can hide. Where the services and shelters are located; where the Sanisettes are. People in San Francisco still like to think of themselves as tolerant, left wing hippies. But the reality on the ground is different.
In February 2016, the Super Bowl 50 exploded in District 6 like a corporate depth bomb. A million out of town visitors flooded into the streets. Limo Hummers prowl the main drag, with rich bros hanging out of them swigging bottles of booze. The homeless, who Mayor Ed Lee proclaimed would “have to leave”—without mentioning for where—were corralled into ever smaller parts of the District as police and city officials herded them out of sight. Hundreds of tents bank up under the freeways and along the less frequented alleys.
Now, as I walk home through District Six, I think of Ajax killing himself in the field because his shame had become too much. I think of Daedalus on his prison of rock, building his wings of wax to try and escape the wrath of King Midas. The conscious drift back and forwards across the expanse of the UN plaza, waiting for the doors of the toilet to open.
It’s not only an American problem, and I know that. It just feels like one, in District Six. Hundreds of millions of us don’t have access to clean water. A billion of us—nearly Darwin’s entire world as he strode across the floors of the Crystal Palace—are openly defecating in fields and streams, and 40 per cent of the world’s population live without access to safe toilets.
At some point, we’re going to finally have to realize: there is no away. We are animals, all of us, shitting and needing and full of shame. We can’t brush it under the rug without it smelling. And there is hope. Composting toilets like the Clivus Multrum are beginning to spring up in cities in New Zealand, and Australia. Out in the wilds of Oregon’s towns, people are starting to whisper about returning to the night waste man and cultivating block-wide composting. Mutterings of solar powered loos and super low flushes can be heard throughout engineering and development circles. But that’s another story.
Sit tight. We still have time to get it right.
REDESIGNING THE SANISETTE
When Paris called in Patrick Jouin to fix the disastrous superloo, he had no idea of the design challenges in store.
As the months passed, and I became more obsessed with the metal monolith in Civic Centre and the shit-strewn pavements around it, I knew I had to close the loop on the past. I had to talk to the person who had designed the Sanisette in the first place. I wanted to ask why it had failed, and what the future held, and if I really would have died in there.
The original designer, however, was lost in the winds of time. Which made me sad, until I realized that the San Francisco Sanisettes are also things of the past. The beasts of a by-gone era, which the city only clings to because Americans are not as enlightened as the French.
In 2008, after an extensive competition, the city of Paris commissioned Patrick Jouin to re-design the Sanisette for the modern city of lights. Jouin is the sort of designer who gets featured in style sections and Elle, all mussed up and sultry looking. The Sanisette is not really the worst designed loo in history; in Paris it’s a huge success. The problem is that each culture has its own needs, its own approach to the squat, or the push, that complicated bodily function that is the cause of so much grief and shame, that has catalyzed both environmental catastrophes and vast feats of engineering.
Four hundred of Jouin’s halting stations now stand, sparkling once more, on the boulevards of the city of love. Waiting to eat children. Just joking.
What drew you to the Sanisette redesign, Patrick?
First, it’s an honor to participate in any project for the public, for citizens. There were already a few public toilets in Paris, but they were not handicapped accessible and they were not well received.
It’s not only a toilet, it’s a service. It’s three things at the same time: a toilet, a drinking fountain, and an enclosed map of everything around the toilet. It’s a very precise map. Not everyone has a cell phone, and a smart phone costs a lot of money if you’re a tourist on roaming, it costs, so you’re lost and you’re looking for where you’re going…
There’s two reasons to redesign something, right? The first reason is that the object was badly designed to start with. The second is the people who are using it have changed. Did you see problems with the original designs?
The problems with the original design were very important.
All women were afraid to use it, because it was very narrow inside, and there was a fear of being trapped in it and being raped.
Oh. Okay. Interesting.
Because we are designers, we went outside and we observed and studied the reaction of people on the streets, whether they wanted to use the toilet or not. After, we asked people who used it, or didn’t want to use it, or who went to use it but changed their minds. After five of us did this for one week, we understood very quickly that there was a major problem with security.
At the beginning, many people didn’t answer honestly. To speak about toilets, you know, is not easy. But we understood that behind this fear of entering there was a real fear, which was to be trapped and raped. The fact that it was not clean was not really true, because most of the time it was clean. The machines were cleaning well.
It was a psychological problem. That’s why we have worked so hard on the psychology, to try to find a way to resolve all the psychological problems.
They actually have that old model where I live in San Francisco, the green one.
It’s like every project, every time, it’s psychology. First, we put the door in the right place. The door is very important.
When you go into the toilet, you think about how people will think about you when you go out, about shame. When you are waiting outside, you also feel shame. You feel vulnerable. So what I did was I put the door in the corner, so when you leave the toilet you don’t cross the eyes of the people who are walking in the streets, you don’t go out perpendicular. I also put a little roof, so you feel protected. You feel already inside, even if you are outside, it’s purely architecture, this sensation of feeling in or out of a space.
Everything is about not feeling ridiculous, shamed, or vulnerable.
We also worked on the opening of the door. At the beginning the door opened too quickly, it created fear. JC Decaux wanted to be efficient. But now we wanted something that opened slowly, so you know that when the door reopens you will have time to go out. It doesn’t reject you, it doesn’t scare you, it opens slowly, you have the time to look inside and to see if it’s okay for you.
When the door opens, we have a red button just in front of you. It’s an alarm in case someone is pushing you from the back. You know you can push this button. It’s reassuring. We put a skylight inside. You don’t feel trapped when you still see the daylight.
The front space is now handicapped accessible, so it’s much bigger than before. We have to thank the handicapped accessibility for that, because sometimes a constraint becomes an advantage.
The interesting thing about the Sanisettes in San Francisco is that their target population isn’t tourists, it’s the homeless. If you were going to redesign the Sanistette with the homeless in mind, what would you change?
It’s always complex, this question, because of course when you are homeless, the Sanisette almost looks like a house: it’s big, there’s light, there’s water, you feel protected. That’s why they are closed at night, because there are less people on the street and it’s too easy to become a house for the homeless, it can create competition and fights so it was decided by the city of Paris that they will close at 8 o clock.
In San Francisco they were actually open for 24 hours until very recently. It’s that strange tension in toilet stuff: what is public and what is private. I mean, most public toilet stalls are shared. Toilet design has changed so much over the last fifty years, going from that public space to the private space where you can’t see inside. What do you think public toilets might look like in another fifty years? Will they be places of reflection?
What we know is that we will be able to measure many physiological elements of the body in the toilet. It’s a moment to know more about your health, it’s very efficient. So I’m sure this will become something normal. That you will learn something.
The public toilet could also become some sort of barometer of public health?
I don’t know about the public toilet, but the toilet itself. All the new technologies, the sensor, the heartbeat, so many things can be quickly measured in a few seconds but… the public toilet is also for a city to welcome everyone, just to be practical and efficient and clean. If you put in toilets, you have less men peeing on the streets. That’s a huge problem in some cities.
I think it’s interesting also for the third world, where you have many problems with toilet systems that don’t work and are not efficient. People are researching solar systems and systems which use less water, or even no water.
I think it’s very interesting, when you have a problem of water. Water is a big problem.
It’s a huge problem.
It’s a huge problem.
So I think this will certainly become a revolution.