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.

Camouflaged Communication

Cellular infrastructure can often be a source of anxiety for the public, both as a perceived threat to the health of the community, or as a technological eyesore obscuring the landscape. In response to a growing demand for greater cellular coverage, telecommunication networks attempt to dodge public censure by camouflaging their infrastructure. 

Stealthy cellular towers come in a variety of strange and whimsical forms, as nostalgic architectural objects (such as clock towers or steeples) or landscape elements (like cypress or evergreen trees). We recently came across an incongruously placed cell tower dressed up like a palm tree in the Arts District of Los Angeles. Rather than blending in, this stark juxtaposition between an industrial environment and the palm tree replica makes the tower glaringly obvious.  

When a city’s infrastructure is exposed, we are reminded of our dependence on a highly engineered environment. We should accept cell towers as integral to the built environment. A new formal language should be developed for this infrastructure, one that can be better integrated into the city without dependence on clichéd vernacular forms to conceal it.