San Francisco’s New Spaceship Toilet: Dark Mode Edition

After just three days of operating, SF’s “futuristic” toilet broke down — but it still looked gorgeous underneath street lights.

By now, you’ve likely heard of the hoopla around the “futuristic” toilet that opened in SF’s Embarcadero last week. A favorable review in the San Francisco Chronicle highlighted the Spaceship-like restroom’s new-age amenities and feel. 

The commode, which offers eight minutes to get in and get out to take care of business, is now open right in front of the Embarcadero Plaza between Market Street and the Ferry Building. Juxtaposed with the old-age, decades-old structures around it, the lavish loo draws immediate attention for its harsh contrast to the building around it.

Photo: Courtesy of Matt Charnock

Per the newspaper, the plan from the City is to now install twenty-four identical iterations of the restroom throughout the city; these new units will replace the self-cleaning dark green units, some of these restrooms now over twenty-five years old. 

The Embarcadero’s spaceship-like restroom is glorious to feast your eyes on. (Its textured exterior and metallic finishings make it dance in the dark.) But at its core, it’s still a toilet.

“From the outside, it’s a design. In the core, it’s a service,” said J. Francois Nion, who runs the West Coast office of Paris-based “street furniture company” JCDecaux responsible for it and the twenty-four other toilets in SF, to the newspaper. “We’re trying to provide amenities that the public needs.”

But what the public needs isn’t futurist iterations of lavatories. What the public needs, in fact, is more of them. San Francisco has just 26 public toilets per 100,000 residents — more than triple the U.S. average. And of the city’s 136 staffed restrooms, only 36 are currently open 24 hours a day. 

It’s why releasing your bladder is such a maddening activity in San Francisco. The odds of you finding a nearby public restroom — and an unoccupied one at that — are slim. And good luck using one from, say, a local corner market or coffee shop or grocery store without purchasing an item. Or, as is the case with the new(ish) downtown San Francisco: You’ll need a recent receipt *and* QR code to take a piss.

Photo: Courtesy of Matt Charnock

Just three days after SF’s now-viral toilet debuted for public use, SFist’s Joe Kukura first broke the news the toilet had, indeed, broken down, poking fun at the fact that JCDecaus had previously said the company  “spent a lot of (design) time coming up with something to look at that would also be simple and durable from a technical standpoint.”

Alas, this seems like a perfect example of why one should never put the cart before the horse so early on.

In a follow-up from the San Francisco Chronicle, the toilet has apparently broken down for two hours of its 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. business hours, per Beth Rubenstein, the deputy director of policy and communications for the Public Works Department.

We can’t simply flush the root of San Francisco’s bathroom problem down the drain with glitzy glamor and virality. It’s an issue that requires wells of pragmatism — utilitarian solutions before public displays of art and, ostensibly, miss-placed capital. The idea of opening more accessible, around-the-clock restrooms should sit in front of opening futuristic ones… that don’t address the present problem.

Regardless of our sentiments toward San Francisco’s new futurist toilet, it does look spectacular, especially at night. It’s just a shame you can’t actually use it for its intended purpose when the sun goes down.

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