Can San Francisco’s new UFO toilets fix its hygiene problem?

Modular space-age pods can also recycle water.


New public toilets are coming to San Francisco. The city’s Department of Public Works announced Monday that it has selected a new design by architectural firm SmithGroupJJR to replace the city’s old Parisian-style green public toilets. The new kiosks look like spaceship pods made of liquid metal. Hopefully, these UFOs will abduct the city’s terrible hygiene problem.


One of San Franciscos current public toilets. [Photo: Flickr user Paul Sableman]
The new pods are called AmeniTrees. SmithGroupJJR designed them to be modular. Each pod will be built from a set of panels that can be rotated and repeated to create different shapes and sizes. There’s a smaller pod that acts as an information kiosk, and a the larger one that’s a toilet. We can only hope that people don’t confuse them.

[Photo: SmithGroupJJR]

The pod’s aesthetic is futuristic–fitting for the city’s rampant technophilia–with a shiny glass and metal skin that can contain static or digital displays to use for in advertising and city information. According to SF Weekly, the new design closely matches the look of other new public infrastructure–the canopies for the stops of the Bay Area Rapid Transport system that connects San Francisco and Oakland with areas in Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Mateo counties.

Each pod also comes with a water recycling system, which collects rain for different uses, like cleaning the interior, flushing the toilets, or watering the plants and trees that come with each pod. Native Californian plants are an integral part of each pod design, serving to beautify and shade the areas. “The design blends sculpture with technology in a way that conceptually, and literally, reflects San Francisco’s unique neighborhoods,” SmithGroupJJR’s design principal Bill Katz tells me in an email. “Together, the varied kiosks and public toilets design will also tell a sustainability story through water reuse and native landscapes.”

It’s a good narrative. Better than the one I imagined of launching pods paid by Silicon Valley bros to get rid of all the homeless people they hate. It’s yet to be seen if the new AmeniTrees are going to have any effect on the city’s hygiene problem. I can already imagine people using all that foliage as another public restroom (although perhaps seeing their own reflection on the pod’s mirror surface will shame them enough to instead do it inside?).

About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.