In the mid-1990s, the San Francisco Department of Public Works contracted with the French outdoor advertising company JCDecaux to provide two dozen accessible, self-cleaning public restrooms to be scattered throughout the city’s sidewalks in areas with high foot traffic. Along with them came 114 advertising kiosks. Both restrooms and kiosks resembled their counterparts in Paris, with Art Nouveau curves and gold accents. They may have added a necessary function to the streetscape, but aesthetically, they didn’t have anything in particular to do with San Francisco.
Now, more than two decades later, that’s about to change. Public Works asked a dozen local architecture firms to submit conceptual designs for replacement restrooms and kiosks—more contemporary versions. We leapt at the chance to enter.
We love design competitions, because they let the office go on a journey together. Of course, they are also a pain in the neck—they’re expensive, and there’s no guarantee that our entry will be the winner. We only had two weeks to come up something, which was a blessing, because otherwise we would have tortured ourselves over the design for much longer.
The entire office gathered to discuss it. Because San Francisco is a city of such distinct neighborhoods, we talked about how we could use color to tailor these pieces of street furniture to each district, so residents could feel like they were part of the neighborhood. We wanted to make them something where people would like to take a selfie.
We also thought about the larger order of the city, what makes San Francisco unique. Could we create an object that would communicate the unique confluence of the natural world and the city grid at an intimate and larger scale?
We considered the practical aspects of fabrication as well as the aesthetic challenge. As with everything we design, we’re really interested in letting the architecture tell a story about how it’s assembled, what it’s made of, how it’s crafted.
Next, a smaller team—Eliza Koshland, Leif Estrada, Carlos Esquivel, Byron Kuth, and I—all collaborated over an intense weekend (we always provide beer and food—makes for better design!). These competitions bring us together in a different way from our usual roles. Everyone has an opportunity to contribute and negotiate. As with all our projects, we start at ground zero, with nothing, but in this case, we were all at ground zero together. Everyone had a different experience of the city, a different understanding, and it was great for us all to learn about each other that way.
For materials, we chose cast aluminum, laminated safety glass, stainless steel, and integral color polycarbonate by 3form. We were interested in thinking of this infrastructure as growing out of the material of the city—a transformation of the sidewalk. It’s like a plant, but it’s made out of industrial-quality materials that we find in urban infrastructure. It’s an object that has to serve a practical function, but it could also allude to nature both in its coloration and in the forms of the aluminum pieces themselves, which could be more organic and leaf-like than typical for a mass-produced set of components.
“I’d recently read in Harvard architecture professor Antoine Picon’s essay ‘Anxious Landscapes: From the Ruin to Rust,’ that a tree planted on a sidewalk of an urban setting is less natural than the ubiquitous materials we use such as concrete or asphalt (which are more natural in the built environment)—causing an anxiety as to what is ‘natural.’ We talked about how these kiosks and restrooms could somehow sprout from the ground, like utilitarian pods. One thing that comes to mind are those cell towers in Los Angeles disguised as trees…”
The kiosks are three-sided, with an aluminum structure that expresses the frame of each panel and allows for flexible displays. At night, they are illuminated so people can easily find them. We gave the structures of the kiosks and bathrooms an inner and an outer layer.
“Since we were working with an international fabricator, we knew we would have to create a system that had the ability to vary slightly from one to the next without having to recreate the structure for each one. We also adopted the idea of creating depth in the layers to elevate the experience of the bathrooms and kiosks, incorporating the creativity of San Francisco. By shifting the outer layer, we gave brief reveals of the colored inner layers. This allowed us to change the appearance of the restrooms/kiosks from every perspective of approach, so passersby could become curious about the structures.”
One of our big inspirations was Corita Kent, AKA Sister Mary Corita, an artist, educator, and nun who challenged injustice, poverty, and racism in her serigraphs, watercolors, and public and private art commissions starting in the 1960s. Boston Gas commissioned Kent to use the huge natural gas tank in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood as a canvas. She painted it with a rainbow swash, visible to commuters as they drive on Interstate 93. That was a great example of making a utilitarian form expressive. We hung up a big picture of the tank in the office while we worked. We were very interested in the negative space between the colors.
For our color scheme, we added irregular vertical stripes of bright color, different colors for different neighborhoods: green for those in Golden Gate Park; international orange (like the Golden Gate Bridge) for the ones along the waterfront in the Embarcadero; whites, grays, and blacks for the Civic Center; pink for the Castro; and so on.
“It was Liz’s idea to look to the architecture of San Francisco, specifically the amazing painted Victorians, to try and capture the unique colors of each neighborhood. I have always admired an artist’s ability to distill and capture intangible qualities of place, and so we also looked at artists whose subject was San Francisco, like Wayne Thiebaud and Robert Bechtle, as well as art within the city itself, like the murals of the Mission and the WPA murals of Coit Tower. We used these color palettes and our own experience to identify color themes that seemed to capture the spirit of each neighborhood.”
As it happened, our concept wasn’t selected. We were disappointed, of course—for about half an hour. But we had made something together. And the process of working together remains with us. We’ve taken what we learned from that experience, and it has already provided inspiration for some of our other projects. Because in design—as in nature—nothing is wasted.