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.

Signs & Sheds

Architects have preferred to change the existing environment rather than enhance what is there. But to gain insight from the commonplace is nothing new: Fine art often follows folk art…Modern architecture has not so much excluded the commercial vernacular as it has tried to take it over by inventing and enforcing a vernacular of its own, improved and universal. It has rejected the combination of fine art and crude art.

- Excerpts from Learning From Las Vegas. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, 1972

 Vitruvius, known for his classical treatise De Architectura, wrote that architecture should provide firmitas, utilitas and venustas (firmness, commodity and delight). If Vitruvius were driving around Los Angeles today, he’d probably struggle to find much delight in the ‘universal’ architecture of strip malls that dot the landscape of Los Angeles.

Out of economic or aesthetic necessity, or both, a building’s signage is often tasked with providing ‘delight’ for the eye. Los Angeles has a strong tradition of hand painted signs, particularly on the shop fronts of small businesses. Through paint and typography, these signs overlay a unique identity over an otherwise anonymous and prosaic structure.  

Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour coined the term decorated shed in Learning From Las Vegas. They defined it as a purely utilitarian structure with a purpose communicated only by its decorated frontage. The decoration is intended to distract the viewer from the structure and to overcompensate for its failings. In Los Angeles, the decorated shed makes a lot of sense from an economic perspective. There is a continuous cycle of businesses opening, closing and relocating, which requires the mobility and adaptability that a generic structure can offer.

The shed can also be a blank canvas for a multitude of unexpected interventions, both formal and graphic. For example, the sign can be scaled to the size of the building or it can project from it to transform the building’s silhouette against the sky. From hand-painted ‘folk art’ signs to the haphazard assemblage of projecting signs -- a unique mixture of graphic economy, and whimsy, can transform and personalize an otherwise nondescript architectural space.