Radical Shit: Countercultural Autonomy and Composting Toilet Design / Lisa Uddin

Illustration of the squat [detail], Natural Energy Design Handbook, September 1973.

It is no accident that Lloyd Kahn, shelter editor for the Whole Earth Catalog and co-author of the still profitable Shelter (published in 1973), left discussion of the bathroom in the latter publication to page 168 of 176.

Cover and Page 168 of Lloyd Kahn’s Shelter (1973).

While this guide to handmade housing championed “discovery, hard work, the joys of self-sufficiency, and freedom,” its world tour of housing forms buried the complex topic of toilet design near the end. For some comparison, domes received their own section and 36 pages.1 The marginalization of toilets in Shelter becomes more pronounced when considering the stakes of taking human bodily waste seriously, particularly via the composting toilet, an inexpensive flush-free technology that works with microorganisms to transform urine and feces into nutrients for soil. Indeed, we can understand Kahn’s single page on the bathroom, truncated as it is, as a preliminary exploration of the power of composting toilets for radical living. Reading from left to right, the first upper column provides information on “Sim Van Der Ryn’s Sanitary Aerobic Compost Privy For One Family,” with advantages including “Doesn’t contaminate ground, surface water”, “no noticeable odor” as “it’s vented, like a normal toilet” and “material cost: less than $100.” The accompanying process diagram renders the steps involved akin to a traffic light moving from red to green and beyond, as the decomposing waste moves between compartments and finally into the garden. The center column follows with three drafts of what a deindustrialized hygiene practice might look like: the expansive corporeality of Albrecht Dürer’s fifteenth-century illustration The Woman’s Bath; a second image illustrating moving wastewater in a rural setting; and the interior view of a domestic Japanese privy whose flat rectilinearity makes a serene counterargument to the bulbousness of a conventional flush toilet. That fixture, and others in the modern Western-style bathroom, appears in the page’s last column, along with a 1933 diatribe on constipation (more on this to follow) and a sketch by ecologist Peter Warshall of “sensible city water use” for a single bathroom that is equal parts pragmatism and quirk.

While Kahn’s book was provisional on the composting toilet and its implications, a 1972-73 course at the University of California Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design was all in. Led by Van der Ryn and colleague Jim Campe, students enrolled in the “Natural Energy Systems” studio researched, designed, and built a self-sustaining model house whose objective was to discover and promote “energy independent habitation.”2

Fig. 2. Energy Pavilion produced by students in Sim Van der Ryn and Jim Campe’s “Natural Energy Systems Studio,” 1972-73, University of California Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design

A diagram based on Van der Ryn’s experiences with the group indicates where toilets belonged, conceptually, in alternative housing design and how one ought to approach the topic itself.

Fig. 3. “Energy Flows in Closed System Habitat,” Natural Energy Design Handbook, September 1973.

“Shitting” was featured as one of six basic shelter activities whose centrality within the larger system, and productivity (being the only activity identified as capable of making anything directly), was ignored at designers and users’ peril. Van der Ryn’s 2005 declaration that “form follows flow,” a riff on Louis Sullivan’s coinage of “form follows function,” adds something to the point, distilling the possibility of modernist architecture less as a series of functions from which aesthetics emerge than an integrated site of “energy flows.”3

The argument for this essay is as follows: that toilets imagined, built, and used in and around U.C. Berkeley’s design studio pushed the radicalism of California counterculture, even for the studio itself. Material in a 150-page volume of reprinted articles, reflections, and drawings compiled after the studio suggests that composting toilets were ground zero, as it were, for a critique and reformulation of human autonomy in everyday modern lifeworlds; a small-scale experiment in how to put high capitalist human bodies into physical, psychic, and semiotic proximity with their own refuse and the act of its elimination. This was human autonomy by a drastically different process, exchanging massive water consumption, chemical processing, and the pollution of the San Francisco Bay for a self-conscious attention to, in the handbook’s words, “taking care of your own shit.” The risk of this experiment was re-inscribing an isolationism conducive to business-as-usual forms of liberal democratic self-making, from postwar consumerism to modernist auteurism (a risk that Greg Castillo has argued was undermined by Bay Area “hippie moderns” including Van der Ryn through “network entrepreneurship.”)4 It is a risk that we see realized in the contemporary marketplace of toilet re-designs, from a 2015 art festival celebrating (and commodifying) public restrooms in Oita, Japan – dubbed the “Toilennale” – to the almost-famous Squatty Potty® whose inventors appeared on the reality TV investment show Shark Tank and current spokespersons are a cheeky medieval prince and plush rainbow unicorn.

The utopianism of hippie toilets seems quaint by comparison. But there were sizable rewards from their experiment as well, not the least of which was enlarging the roster of counterculture makers to include not only elective and in some cases symbolic dropouts (given that we are talking about university employees and matriculating students), but also the nonhuman participants in and of white middle-class waste.

My claim builds from a point outlined by the editors of West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California, who note that dimensions of race and class are the blind spots in the history and historiography of Bay Area communalism because of a predominantly white middle-class involvement.5 As a component part of communal “autonomous dwelling units” (with the added potential for nuclear family households), composting toilet designs were constitutive of this population and its worldviews, as were the bacterial actants that have helped produce and sustain that very population.6 This second point takes its cues from literatures variously designated as posthumanist, new materialist, and the environmental humanities, which recommend a more robust accounting of the modalities of nonhuman critters, things, and spaces in histories of human sovereignty and its unraveling. In-house aerobic decomposition went far in demonstrating how an ordinary house in the city could be, in the words of one journalist covering Van der Ryn’s subsequent urban homesteading collaboration in 1976, “a mini-ecosystem in which rabbits, chickens, fish, honeybees, plants, microbes and people interact in a flourishing example of interrelated self-reliance.”7 It is a short step from this image of interspecies heterodoxy to, for example, feminist science studies scholar’s Karen Barad’s assertion that:

All bodies, not merely ‘human’ bodies, come to matter through the world’s iterative intra-activity – its performativity. This is true not only of the surface or contours of the body but also of the body in the fullness of its physicality.8

What fullness between and within bodies took shape via the composting toilet, and how might we specifically locate the matter and mattering of shit in this design discourse?

Consider the squat plate and what it enabled. As a 9” x 24” opening in the floor with a hinged plywood cover and pull-up handle, the mechanism’s low profile proposed elimination without ornamentation (Figs. 6 and 7).

Figs. 6 and 7. Illustrations of compositing toilet and squat plate detail, Natural Energy Design Handbook, September 1973.

Its simplicity eschewed the French and British tradition of pedestal toilets, an at times highly embellished artifact described by one bathroom historian, following Charles Baudelaire, as “Les Fleurs Du Mal” (The Flowers of Evil), perhaps because it offered verticality at the price of constipation, hemorrhoids, and evacuation time. (Fig. 8).9

Fig. 8. Illustrations from Lawrence Wright’s Clean and Decent: The Fascinating History of the Bathroom and the Water Closet (1960).

Early twentieth-century toilets delivered more of the same, albeit under “a wave of ‘sanitary puritanism’” that condemned any decorative elements as unhygienic.10 But sitting high on a “throne-style water closet design” endured, reinforcing the space of emptying bladders and bowels as one of self-actualization through physiological negation.11 Van der Ryn was characteristically expansive about the problem, writing:

The development of Mr. Crapper’s water closet and urban sewer systems coincides with the ascendance of Victorian priggishness typified by clothing that disguised the body’s true form from head to foot. The gleaming white functional bathroom was perfected in the twenties – a period noted for its crusade against ‘germs’ – those nasty creatures in Listerine ads. One wonders how bacteria that sustain our lives ever survived the rhetoric of the antiseptic hygiene age.

With the squat plate, toilet space manifests instead as a space of Enlightenment humanism’s endangerment, altering users’ sense of decontaminated human subjectivity through a re-acquaintance with their own embodiment.

Fig. 9. Illustration of the squat, Natural Energy Design Handbook, September 1973.

By positioning each foot on either side of the plate and pressing the thighs against the abdomen, with arms resting or wrapping around splayed knees, there was no denying that colons, bladders, rectums, and the “vibrant matter” that passes through them were essential to California living, modern and otherwise.12 This is not to suggest that squatting was a radicalizing posture in and of itself. Embodiments do not unfold in a vacuum, and in this case, were contingent upon the extent to which a body was able to assume the position at all. The studio’s paper trail makes no mention of assistive bars or handles, or modified squats, for those with bad knees, balance or other challenges.

What did receive consideration were attitudes about the posture from early twentieth-century hygiene studies, which confirmed its efficacy and ties to a preindustrial past, such as “An ideal seat would place the body in a position naturally assumed by man in primitive conditions,” and “Man’s natural attitude during defecation is a squatting one, such as may be observed amongst field workers or natives.” It is not surprising that these otherings, replete with fantasies about non-Western atemporality and isolation, would find expression at the time of their initial publication. That they would figure into a Bay Area discourse of compositing toilets in the early 70s is perhaps more so. At minimum, they remind us that the conceptual resources for undoing the habits of modern industrial humanity are always embedded within histories of race and colonization, shitting included.13

The Natural Energy Systems studio was particularly keen to connect toilet design to the aesthetics and practices of, in Van der Ryn’s phrasing, “the Orient.” Like Kahn’s book Shelter, the course handbook included a Japanese privy illustration, building a case with other drawings and text for stark differences between Eastern and Western waste disposal systems and avowing that “Nations endure only as long as their topsoil.”

Fig. 10. Japanese privy illustration, Natural Energy Design Handbook, September 1973.

A notable argument that would resurface in Van der Ryn’s 1977 book-length treatment on waste came from a nineteenth-century American’s report that, in Hiroshima, so-called “night soil” could pay the rent for tenement house occupants and was also collected by farmers who built roadside privies for passing travelers.14 In giving composting toilets a far Eastern pedigree, the studio sacralized and instrumentalized the squat and its yields, shifting the status of excreta from undesirable surplus to misplaced and precious resource. Writing excerpted in the handbook from architecture professor Tom Bender, who led construction of the experimental Ouroboros house at the University of Minnesota in 1973, underlined the shift: “[O]ur bathrooms change from an embarrassing sanitary facility to something more akin to the Japanese toilet or benjo – more a shrine than a disposal site.”

Sacred sites need their ceremonies. Proper function of the privy necessitated “a simple ritual, a few minutes a month to turn the pile,” which was located in one of two concrete chambers beneath the bathroom. More instructions followed, establishing the pile as a focal point of the design: “In turning the pile, fold the outside layer into the corner. The more often the pile is turned, the quicker decomposition takes place under optimum conditions.” After 6 months, the handbook recommended shifting the pile to the second chamber for additional aging. Maintaining the composition of the pile was key: a straw base with no more than one quarter of it feces and one quart of urine per person per day, supplemented with peat moss, sawdust, and other organic material like toilet paper and corn cobs. The goal was to support the exuberant performance of “useful” bacteria, which had the capacity “to produce swett-smelling [sic] disease free humus, rich in [soil] nutrients.” Another benefit was the production of methane gas, useful for household cooking. Potential dangers of the pile were to be taken seriously as well, namely the inadvertent production and spread of fecal-born bacterial diseases. As Van der Ryn clarified in subsequent publications, “composting is designed to destroy [disease-producing] organisms,” including pathogenic viruses, bacteria, and parasitic worms.15 This was accomplished via the concrete box with a venting screen that separated the pile from surface soil, surface and ground water, and flies and insects. Kept moist, fluffy, and loose, at around one cubic yard, and with a fresh oxygen supply and core temperature of up to 160°F, the pile would kill problem organisms and ultimately build topsoil.

The success (read: safety) of this process hinged on users’ sensory engagement with the pile, feeling its changes in heat, smelling for indicative odors, and observing for its ideal volume and the possibility of “unsightly conditions.” In this sense, the handbook’s directives anticipated Donna Haraway’s enthusiasm for species entanglements, especially on the domestic and Northern Californian front. In When Species Meet, the UC Santa Cruz philosopher describes how, with dogs, she is “drawn into the multispecies knots that they are tied into and that they retie by their reciprocal action,” a practice that is predicated on modes of touch, regard, looking back (physically and historically) and “becoming with.”16 We might imagine how the pile, alive with microorganisms and enlisting the care of its human companions approximated similarly productive relations. But how similar? Myra Hird’s sociological study of “microontologies” helps refine the possibility by tracking “the ways in which microbial becomings – becomings with bacteria, becomings with microbial communities – somehow fall below our line of view” precisely because they cannot be touched, regarded, or look back, and more, because they evade classification as a “species.” This imperceptibility is exacerbated, and exemplified, by Hird’s recognition that “I” am bacteria and bacteria are “us,” in the sense that they help build the conditions of human possibility. And that even so, most bacterial living has nothing to do with humans.17 Such indifference to the collective – a repudiation of any human/nonhuman collectivity – would have struck many Bay Area architects and anti-designers, were they attuned to it, as counterproductive, possibly even a source of (non-pathogenic) antagonism. Bacterial apathy might have surpassed even the most sophisticated human version of what curator Andrew Blauvelt identifies as the “drop out” way: purposeful disengagement from and disavowal of normative society.18 Put differently, and as a question, did maintaining the pile assume a community of life that was only partially consensual?

If the anti-establishment microontologies of the compost pile remain speculative, the normativities in and around the pile are more clear. Here we can note that hippie modern world building involved the segregation and death of threatening organisms in order for “useful” organisms to thrive therein. And that concrete – the material of choice for large-scale urban renewal at mid-century – was primary to that operation. On the subject of turning the pile, moreover, the handbook read: “You are managing a complex biological machine that has no moving parts” (emphasis mine); an awkward metaphor that mistook the dynamism of microorganisms for a static man-made apparatus, and ensured that any life (good or bad) was an object of strict control. Evidently, there were limits when it came to imagining a countercultural autonomy out of intimacies between users and their waste. Indeed, despite important gestures towards the smallness and indeterminacy of “man,” Van der Ryn and his cohort retained a dimension and arrangement of the “eco-tectural household” that was familiar to humanism under industrialization. As an illustration of that household, we see an image that keeps modern man very much alive, be it through the central space of the house proper, in contradistinction to manageable nonhuman objects, like the “garden,” “clean water,” “poultry” and “nature,” or the feelings to experience at the periphery (i.e., “peace” in the woods, “joy” in the meadow).

Fig. 11. “Ecotectural Household,” Natural Energy Design Handbook, September 1973.

But the strange (non)location of the household’s toilet is an important complication. Sited both within the lower sixth portion of the house (designated for “shitting”) and the outdoor aperture of a central pipe expelling human excreta-turned-topsoil (designated as “compost privy”), it is not entirely clear where the process of “taking care of your own shit” might happen. That the place of human waste and nonhuman abundance appears comparatively fluid is one indication that countercultural living via the composting toilet was not entirely sunk. In these ways, the Natural Energy Systems studio and its proposed hygiene practice was at once an instigator, saboteur, and advocate for microbial formulations of becoming more radically human.


  1. On the early countercultural currency of domes, and its devaluation, see Simon Sadler, “The Dome and the Shack: The Dialectics of Hippie Enlightenment,” in West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in North California, eds. Iain Boal, Janferie Stone, Michael Watts, and Cal Winslow (Oakland: PM Press, 2012), 72-80.
  2. Sim Van der Ryn, Design for Life: The Architecture of Sim Van Der Ryn (Salt Late City: Gibbs Smith, 2005), 44-45.
  3. Ibid., 8.
  4. On “hippie moderns” and modernism see Andrew Blauvelt, “Preface” of Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia, ed. Andrew Blauvelt (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2015), 11-14. On entrepreneurship, see Greg Castillo, “Counterculture Terroir: California’s Hippie Enterprise Zone” in Hippie Modernism, 87-101.
  5. West of Eden, xvii.
  6. Reading Bruno Latour’s concept of  “actants,” political theorist Jane Bennett specifies it as “a source of action that can be either human or nonhuman; it is that which has efficacy, can do thing, has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, alter the course of events.”  Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), viii.
  7. Julie Reynolds, “Urban Homesteading: The Integral Urban House,” Mother Earth News, November/December 1976; accessed 5 January 2016.
  8. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 152-3.
  9. Lawrence Wright, Clean and Decent: The Fascinating History of the Bathroom and the Water Closet (New York: The Viking Press, 1960), 206.
  10. David J. Eveleigh, Privies and Water Closets (Oxford: Shire Publications, 2008) 61.
  11. F. A. Hornibrook cited in Barbara Penner “Designed-in safety: ergonomics in the bathroom” in Use matters: an alternative history of architecture, ed. Kenny Cupers, (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), page?
  12. Bennett.
  13. Here, it is worth adding that the same applies for waste disposal discourses that seek to paradoxically “modernize” their populations through “off the grid” sanitation technologies; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations’ “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge” in China and India being two recent examples “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge – Strategy Overview,” http://www.gatesfoundation.org/What-We-Do/Global-Development/Reinvent-the-Toilet-Challenge#AbouttheReinventtheToiletChallenge; accessed 7 January 2016.
  14. The full citation of this report, attributed to Edward Morse’s 1886 book Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings, appeared in Sim Van der Ryn, The Toilet Papers: Recycling Waste and Conserving Water (White River Junction,VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 1978: 1999), 27-28.
  15. Ibid., p. 69
  16. Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2008), 35-36.
  17. Myra J. Hird, The Origins of Sociable Life: Evolution After Science Studies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 135, 26. See also Myra Hird, “In/Human Waste Environments” in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 21:2-3, 2015, pp. 213-214.
  18. Blauvelt, 13.