[Editor's note: click on the image series above to see the design process leading to Matthew Soules' solution for a city's 'public urination problem'.]

"What is man," pondered one of Isak Dinesen's characters in 1934's Gothic Tales, "but a minutely set, ingenious machine for turning, with infinite artfulness, the red wine of Shiraz into urine?" A rhetorical question, perhaps, but the North American urban reality is a complete subversion: in our public streets, the post-pub ritual of pissing in the streets has carried on with neither artfulness nor ingenious machinery -- until now.

Vancouver-based architect Matthew Soules has created the first standalone public urinal -- actually a first for the continent. The average North American city has grotty underground bogs, plastic porta-potties, and full-service washroom-buildings, but nothing that could be called a true standalone, permanent, European-style "pissoir." The gracefully curved structure was commissioned by the City of Victoria to address the "public urination problem," as press-release bumph puts it -- the male citizenry's odiferous habit of relieving themselves in the street and on storefronts, wreaking havoc with city planners' utopian ideals.

Soules recently travelled to Texas to receive a Pinnacle Award -- the Oscars of Washington, D.C.-based International Downtown Association -- for the pissoir design. Since then, he's been attracting a slew of inquiries for further iterations of the project. By way of disclosure, I'll mention that he was my co-essayist on the recently published Guidebook to Contemporary Architecture in Vancouver -- but as anyone involved in a group book project can attest, that doesn't automatically lend itself to mutual endearment. Still, it's timely to recall Soules' own proviso in his Guidebook essay, excerpted in The Tyee last summer: the livability of a city is largely dependent on unseen force of design, which can undermine as well as enhance the urban environment.

Many of the capital cities of Europe have long offered pissoirs to their flâneurs. But over here, Soules could find no precedent for an above-ground stand-alone urban pissoir. For construction sites and music festivals, you might chance upon the proverbial Jiffy Johns -- those hideous plastic or fibreglass fly-by-nighters -- but nothing with a sense of elegance, dignity and permanence. The City of Vancouver's attempts to address its own shiraz-recycling problem have been underwhelming to date: in 2007, the city began installing a series of eight "free" automated public toilet booths across the town. What the city website doesn't show you or tell you is that that these lavatories are advertising vehicles supplied by the French company JCDescaux, which also plasters airports, sidewalks, bus shelters and other public spaces with ads. Doesn't this most basic bodily function -- not to mention the surrounding public space -- deserve to be an ad-free zone? Moreover, the billboard-cum-bog toilets are chemical-based and high-tech, not necessarily conducive to low-maintenance longevity.

So, Soules and his compact team (including UBC graduate Mike Wartman) worked hard to fuse history, economy, utility and aesthetics into one cohesive, low-tech, ad-free, perfect design. The basic concept is "exceedingly simple," says Soules: the two basic elements are a circular concrete slab from which a urinal supporting pedestal rises, and a privacy screen made of ordinary steel pipes. The pipes are welded into three segments that are then bolted together to wrap around the urinal inside. Why steel pipes? Because they're cheap, durable, and hard to vandalize. They riff on the steel poles of the surrounding traffic signs in the city. And when part of a strategic design, they're beautiful.

'A bazillion study-sketches'

The apparent simplicity, though, belies months of research followed by trial-and-error prototypes -- thousands of photos of objects and environmental details around the proposed site, plus "a bazillion study-sketches," as Soules recalls, each attempting to address the quirks of human nature and social psychology. The biggest is privacy: we don't want people we know to see us using the lavatory, even if they can't see the organs in question. Most of us naturally prefer having a closed door when we're answering nature -- but doors are a double-sided problem. Doors are deal-breaking barriers for many of the inebriated lads, for whom the simple task of finding and operating a doorknob requires a patience and dexterity that is temporarily unavailable to them. Closable doors are also a deal-breaker for law enforcement: once you have a closable door, you'll have illicit acts transpiring behind that door, out of eye-range of the police and public.

At the same time, how do you know the urinal is safe to enter unless you can see someone inside of it? The public/private paradox is something that not even the Europeans have overcome: their pissoirs are either hidden to view, or quite open, showing the proverbial clothed backside of the man in motion. Although silhouettes and suggestions were fine to both user and passerby, the users do not want to be recognized by those on the outside, who in turn want to be spared the overt imagery of what's happening inside. So, for the Victoria urinal prototype, the team had a trial-and-error series of adjusting the pipe lengths and the gaps between them. They had to finely calibrate the recognition factor to a precise balance, adjusting the spaces between pipes so that you can tell there's one (and only one) person inside, but you can't tell who it is. To do this, behind the prototype's pipes they placed a cutout photograph of perhaps the most highly recognizable face in the province: the premier of British Columbia. "As soon as we could tell it was Gordo, we knew the spaces were too far apart," explains Soules.

When they positioned the pipe-wall too close to the ground, it was difficult to tell if someone was using the pissoir. When they raised it too high -- say, exposing the occupant's legs to knee-height -- the inside activity became too flagrant. The answer lay in varying the height of the wall-of-pipes, so that the torso region of the user would be strategically shielded by pipes.

'Like a dream come true'

Cutting and assembling so many different lengths of pipe would have been a huge expense and logistical nightmare -- so the design specifies all the same-length segments of pipe, which is what generates that beautiful, evocative curve as the slowly rise up off the ground, subtly alerting passersby to notice that someone is in there. So the curvilinear form is actually practical, economical, and a nice riff on Victoria's historic curved rooftop domes and cupolas. It's the perfect fusion of art and function.

"In a sense," says Soules, "the Victoria public urinal seeks to re-invent the 19th century European 'pissoir' for 21st-century Victoria."

So just what is it like to the end-user? Don't ask this (female) reporter, but according to architect and first-hand user Bill Pechet, "I love it! It's like a dream come true: you get to pee in public, but nobody can see you."

Which brings us to the obvious question: where's the women's model? Soules is currently working on a female-friendly version, and hopes to have a prototype by next year. The difference in anatomy and privacy needs make the XX-version a bigger challenge, and to start with, there was less need to come up with a female pissoir because, well, almost all of that profigate public pissing was, to use Soules' more delicate words, "a male-specific problem."

Flushed with inspiration

Although bureaucrats and the general public are slow to credit the design talent behind the Victoria pissoir, Soules' peers are actively drawing inspiration from his work.

Architect Bruce Carscadden, who had already designed an artful set of public washrooms in Burnaby, is now crafting a series of outdoor urinals at Vancouver's Wreck Beach, including a standalone pissoir and a "nine-holer" (that's shop-talk for a multi-basin lavatory). Carscadden freely allows that he was inspired by Soules' design strategies for mediating privacy and transparency levels. What's intriguing is why the denizens of a nude beach would need such discretion.

"It's funny," notes Carscadden, "but even when people have all their junk out on display at a beach, they still want privacy when they do something with it."

Designing public lavatories, however crucial to social well-being, is a double jeopardy for architects. First, because of our squeamishness about the purpose; second, because public works of any kind -- from homeless shelters to public schools -- tend to be undermined by governments who don't want to appear to be "wasting" taxpayers' money on public works. "Just the notion of making a public urinal is a lightning rod" says Soules.

Man is indeed an ingenious machine for turning wine into urine. Can't we encourage and recognize our designers for achieving far more?  [Tyee]

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