Due to our ever-increasing use of technology, our reliance on electricity is stronger than ever. And the interconnectedness of the grid has resulted in a weak system that lacks redundancy. Contributing to the fragile nature of this delicate web of systems is the fact that many of our current power plants are reaching the end of their lifespan. From medical devices and scientific research to transportation and defense, when the electrical infrastructure falters, the results are catastrophic. A shift in infrastructural strategy is imminent and, in some places, already underway.
I recently presented this topic at our in-house Architecture Forum. “Power Shift” explored the current shift in the infrastructure of the U.S. power grid, and the architectural opportunities at stake within this movement.
The Evolution of the Power Plant
In order to frame a discussion of how architecture can insert itself into these new infrastructural strategies, I presented a brief history of the power plant. It was important for this review to note the evolution of the architectural language of this typology in order to glean some understanding of how we might operate in the public realm of the new power plant. Issues of scale, materiality, site and functionality played a changing role in all of the examples. On one end of the spectrum, the Pearl Street Station, built in 1882, was sited in the urban fabric of Manhattan at the scale of the neighborhood. Almost one century later, the Danskammer & Roseton Generating Station was built in Newburgh, NY. Out of the urban context, disengaged from public space, and at the scale of a small college campus, this power plant had a much different language than that of the Pearl Street Station. The examples touched on both advantages and disadvantages of the evolving approach to the infrastructure throughout history.
The evolution of our infrastructural systems has led us to the place we are now: a place of the centralized system. As the national power grid has grown, it has become a maze of interdependent tentacles, wherein a small, localized problem can quickly escalate to a catastrophic level. We are now seeing a shift to more localized infrastructure through district energy projects and microgrids. There is a movement at the government and policy level to pursue these projects.
In the presentation, I posited that architects should be inserting themselves into this movement towards more regional infrastructure. There are opportunities to go beyond simply addressing the infrastructural goals at hand. These include:
- The opportunity to contribute to the spatial organization and planning of a region or development that might not otherwise be addressed.
- The ability of visual interaction to spark curiosity in the infrastructure and its function that, in turn, could lead to a public response to resource use.
- A form of educational functionality embedded within these projects could serve to activate awareness of the cycle of resource consumption and the impacts of our usage.
- Pulling in other programmatic elements, or simply siting the projects with sensitivity towards placemaking, provides the opportunity to create a public amenity.
I presented a series of case studies that successfully created an opportunity out of an infrastructural problem, including the Mod 7 at U Penn designed by Leers Weinzapfel Associates and the Hydroelectric Power Station designed by Becker Architects for the city of Kempten, Germany. These projects demonstrate how architecture has the potential to engage in this current shift towards more localized systems if we choose to insert ourselves.
As architects, we can position this work to positively impact spatial planning, to advocate for civic engagement and to push the boundaries of the engineering and technology to accommodate an opportunistic vision. Elevating these structures and systems from the mundane and utilitarian to the spatially rich and engaging is a critical aspect of this shift.
The discussion following the presentation circled around several issues and questions, including:
- Is it our responsibility as designers to celebrate or integrate these pieces of infrastructure?
- How can architects sell the extra design investment to the client?
- Budget proposition: is this the way public money wants to be spent? If so, it becomes an easier pitch to market ourselves this way, as well as get clients on board.
- Discussion of the scale of the campus and how, from both a size and client perspective, these seem to be our best avenue into the market.
- Is it ethical to dress up fossil fuel plants with high design and innovative architecture?
- In countries like the Netherlands, a lack of space forces the issue and shapes the design approach to these projects. In the United States, do we have the space to park this infrastructure out of sight? And how can we get people to care about the design?
- Architecture provides an opportunity for the building to operate as a gateway to our understanding of the infrastructural systems.