San Francisco’s Mission Dolores Park, a grassy incline covering two city blocks, offers relatively sunny weather and sweeping views of downtown. Originally opened in 1905, Dolores Park was a gathering spot for refugees of the 1906 earthquake; after World War II, an influx of Mexican immigrants transformed the fabric of the neighborhood surrounding it, symbolized in the park by the installation of a replica of the Mexican Liberty Bell in 1966. By the turn of the millennium, Dolores Park had become a sort of social hub where the city’s many demographics would leisurely commingle. But as the city’s population burgeoned, so did the popularity of the park, and eventually its modest bathroom accommodations proved insufficient. It was not uncommon for restroom lines to reach into the dozens and often many could be found peeing along the train tracks near the park’s northwestern corner.
In 2016, after over $20 million spent and four years in the making, the newly renovated Dolores Park opened to the public. In addition to tennis courts, a playground, and extensive landscaping, the number of toilets increased from a paltry four to 27, curiously augmented by… a single open-air pissoir at the park’s apex. Its debut elicited a range of reactions, from a gleeful review from Drew Magary in GQ (“I think the urinal is a fantastic idea. For one thing, pissing outside is the BEST”), to a lawsuit claiming it was unfair to women and people with disabilities.
Pissoirs first emerged in 19th-century Paris as a means to curb urination en plein air, and while they numbered over 1,000 in the ’30s, by 2006 only one remained in the entire city. With the pissoir passe in Paris, it was the perfect time for San Francisco, a notoriously unfashionable city, to adopt the model. According to the Recreation and Parks Department, the idea for the pissoir floated around during the community participation process for the park’s renovation as a way to relieve the rampant urination occurring on the adjacent Muni tracks.
In 2002 San Francisco banned public urination, imposing fines up to $500 for those caught in the act. When this didn’t faze the population, the city implemented some kind of special paint that would “bounce” a perpetrator's urine back at them. But the root of the problem remained untreated: San Francisco is lacking in public restrooms, bringing us back to the issue at hand. Why a pissoir, and why there?
Dolores Park’s pissoir consists of a chain link fence semi-circle on a concrete foundation with a drain in the middle, a one-person contraption which leaves little coverage for anything other than standing acts of urination. Its position at the very top of the hill puts it at a rather inconvenient destination, and makes it more of an embellishment than a functional object in service to the people. Public restrooms are important for public health, but the pissoir is so profoundly misplaced and non-inclusive that it can only be seen as an architectural fascinator.
Since the ’90s, the term “fascinator” has been used to refer to a decorative headpiece worn on formal occasions. Though the fascinator may fulfill some of the functions of a hat, they really ask to be assessed on purely aesthetic terms. Purposefully eye-catching, a fascinator is often a combination of elegant, obnoxious, garish and avant-garde. When evaluated on these terms rather than those of “useful toilet,” the existence of Dolores Park’s pissoir makes more sense.
If architecture is considered political technology, in that through observing something a viewer may gather understanding about the culture or people who built it, what does this pissoir in question stand for? It is a stark and brutalist interpretation of the form, lacking the Victorian flourishes of its Parisian forebears. Brutalism is architecture of the state: institutional and deliberately plain by nature, buildings and objects built in the tradition of brutalism present themselves through an honest conveyance of their materials. Between its brutalist design, its notable placement and its inception via community activism, the pissoir is San Francisco’s monument to public urination.
As an institutional structure situated at the top of a hill overlooking the city of San Francisco, the pissoir brings to mind a panopticon. While the panopticon was conceptualized by Jeremy Benthem in the 19th century, it was Michel Foucault who developed it into a metaphor for the relationship between power and privacy in his book Discipline and Punish. Panopticism is a disciplinary mechanism where power is exerted by imposing on the subject a state of constant surveillance. One knows they could be examined at any time, but has no insight into the presence or nature of the examiner, and thus must always conduct their behavior under the assumption that they are being watched.
Public restrooms, as it turns out, have often been used as political apparatuses in this tradition. Partitions in American restrooms are notorious for having wide gaps between the door and the wall as well as stalls that don’t extend all the way to the floor, purposefully designed to eliminate any semblance of privacy. In an article for Slate, Shannon Palus writes “The flimsy partitions start at least a foot off the ground, don’t go anywhere near the ceiling, and fail to block the reality that we’re pooping and peeing right next to each other.” She goes on to note that this design has been justified because of the lack of privacy it provides, before ruminating, “Living in a free society means giving up a little safety in exchange for a bathroom door without gaps.”
Thus the pissoir embodies the ultimate symbol of the surveillance capitalism that Silicon Valley has become known for. The companies that The Bay Area nurtured into global powerhouses have transformed from missions of connectivity to collectors and brokers of our personal data. Our interests, likes, photos and any other expressions are ceaselessly observed, interpreted and sold without our knowledge. And thus the pissoir is the ideal manifestation of this economy: Its occupier given the privilege of unlimited observation while simultaneously engaging in a taboo activity (i.e., peeing outside).
The pissoir signals San Francisco’s formalization of public urination as part of the city’s defining aesthetic. Much like the opening credits of Full House or streetcars in Rice-A-Roni ads, thinking of San Francisco should elicit thoughts of open-air urination. This wouldn’t make San Francisco the first major city to dabble in the aesthetics of urination: Brussels’ Manneken Pis (the Little Pisser), a statue of a boy urinating into a fountain, is an icon of Belgian identity, exemplifying the nation’s characteristic sense of humor, which is known as zwanze.
What makes San Francisco’s embrace of the piss aesthetic distinct from the Little Pisser is that it is the thing being pissed on rather than the thing doing the pissing. Instead of a humorous nod to a sort of defiant urban jocularity, it is a passive receptacle for whatever life dishes out — a surrender to the inevitable, a Jon to life’s Garfield. Like something out of a J.G. Ballard novel, the pissoir is architecturally derived masochism at its core. One does not need to look far for resonance on this theme in the city, as Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain is one of the centerpieces of SFMOMA’s permanent collection. The museum (which you can actually see from the pissoir if you squint) has had this icon of 20th century art on display since it reopened in 2016 — just a few months after the pissoir made its debut.
Perhaps the most famous artist to explore the aesthetics of urinating on things is Andy Warhol: For his work Oxidation Series he invited friends and acquaintances to urinate onto a canvas covered in metallic paint to cause oxidation. In 1987, Andres Serrano made headlines with his work Piss Christ, which is a photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in a glass tank of his own urine. Critic Lucy R. Lippard, when assessing the work’s formal value, mentioned its “deep rosy glow that is both ominous and glorious,” though, other critics, namely Sean Hannity, were less generous.
Though many artists have explored the aesthetics of piss, maybe the best example we can look to to make sense out of San Francisco’s pissoir is a Swedish children’s television show. Biss och Kajs is an educational program that explains bodily functions to children. Instead of casting our natural excretions in shame, the show demystifies them and teaches us to embrace them rather than feel ashamed or confused by them.
Someday you might find yourself in Dolores Park and you might choose to relieve yourself via the pissoir. Behind a divider with the entire city before you, you’ll find it is you who feels exposed. You might close your eyes to evade this contradiction. The racket of the J Train and traffic will blend with the sounds of park goers’ revelry to create an aural collage of the city. You might think, why a urinal here? You might list out alternatives in your head: a bench, public art, a swingset.
You’ll open your eyes again and see that view, but now instead of appreciating its holistic beauty, you start to pick out landmarks. The Salesforce Tower, One Rincon Hill, the Millennium Tower. You wonder what San Francisco could have been had it chosen a different path. What could I be looking at instead of this? What if Matt Gonzalez had become mayor instead of Gavin Newsom in 2003? But you’ll never complete this thought before you’re done peeing.
The pissoir today is shrouded in greenery. The starkness of its concrete and chainlink is now overwhelmed by lush plant life native to The Bay Area. A passerby wouldn’t be blamed for missing it entirely. If the pissoir can be reclaimed, perhaps then the city, too.