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.

No Man's Land

Cities often suffer from a lack of green space. Which is why it was so baffling to encounter a small park at the intersection of Bundy, Ohio Ave and Santa Monica Blvd that is completely gated off and closed to the public. 

The City closed the park in the 90s because it was seen as unsafe. 25 years on, the park is still surrounded by a 6-foot high fence, effectively making it an inanimate, oversized terrarium. Peer through the steel bars, and you’ll see walnut trees and empty stone benches.

Recently, community members have petitioned to reopen it. One evening, we spotted a local karate school instructing students in the park. Perhaps they hopped the fence? At the same time that they were practicing martial arts, they were also participating in an ad hoc form of reverse eminent domain. 

This triangular park is a missed opportunity that highlights the conflict between safety and practicality, what constitutes public and private, and how function can so easily succumb to symbol. The space has been reduced to an icon: park. It no longer participates in the life of the city and should be reimagined as a space that not only generates a notion of health and clean air, but also promotes culture and civic interaction.