Utility is the city’s bloodline: power, water and gas are all infrastructural needs required to sustain a city’s pulse. The architecture of utility is equally critical to this vitality. Power plants, oil refineries, sewage treatment, transformers, power poles, and the like, all must find a home within our streets. Often these are relegated to the periphery, blighted outliers mapping the suburban-urban divide. Another topic entirely.
However, at times these find a place within the city center. And — in an all-too-polite act to blend in with their context — transformers, telecommunication hubs, vent structures, etc, sit like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Disengaged, windowless, and fortified, this programmatic cloak is nothing but a ruse gone wrong.
We often pass the LA Power & Water building at Pico and Spaulding with a mixture of disappointment and delight. At once this is an amusing building, playfully dipped in a cream-colored batter to void itself of scale and program. A monochromatic gem! However, beyond this cloak sits a form far less intriguing: office building. Maybe it was an office building at one time? Doubtful. While beautiful in its mid-century plinth-and-tower parti, it teases the city-dweller. A formal bait-and-switch through the sign of “office building”, it creates glass entries, chained; gardens, fenced; perimeters, placarded.
From this we’ve made two observations. First, architecture of utility has the potential to free itself of the human scale, to take on a unique and divergent programmatic engagement with the city, not only in the way its foot meets the city fabric, but also in the way its silhouette meets the sky: stripped of many typical architectural constraints it has more flexibility to experiment with formal beauty and shear monumentality. Second, if the architecture of utility requires fortification — in which we all take a bit of comfort — what then is the contemporary architecture of fortification? Certainly we can do better than chains, fences and placards.