Fred A. Bernstein

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In My Backyard, Please!

Infrastrucutre gets a new look

Published in The New York Times, February 27, 2005

In My Backyard, Please: The Infrastructure Beautiful Movement


STEVEN HOLL'S latest building, a water filtration plant shaped like a pipe, covered in stainless steel shingles and set in a field on the outskirts of New Haven, is hard to miss - as long as you know where to look.

Concerned that it could attract terrorists, the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority is trying to keep the plant's location secret. Which is more than a little surprising. Mr. Holl - the architect of a sponge-inspired dormitory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a museum in Kansas City, Mo., that resembles giant shards of glass - was hired by the water authority to ensure that the plant looked like no other building in the world. He complied, enclosing acres of equipment in the pipelike structure, which is so big and so shiny that it might be visible from Mars.

The authority is not alone in teaming innovative architecture with a terribly prosaic purpose. From New Haven to Hiroshima, architects best known for signature museums and concert halls are now designing buildings filled with tanks and filters.

"We're not back to the W.P.A. yet," said Alan Plattus, a professor of architecture at Yale, referring to the federal agency that commissioned architecturally significant public works during the Great Depression. "But we seem to be moving in that direction."

It is the NIMBY phenomenon that seems to be driving the desire for something beyond concrete fortresses or tin sheds rimmed by chain-link fences. Why shout "Not in my backyard!" if your backyard can be made to resemble a sculpture garden?

"In an increasingly crowded world, there are more and more infrastructure buildings, and they're going to occupy increasingly sensitive locations," said the Boston architect Jane Weinzapfel. And often, she said, the buildings are far larger than anything around them.

It takes architecture to tame giants.

Three years ago, Ms. Weinzapfel and her partner, Andrea Leers, began racking up awards for their "chilled water plant" at the University of Pennsylvania. The building is the first structure visitors see as they approach the campus from the south. So the partners situated the cooling equipment behind a skin of folded, perforated metal. More or less opaque depending on lighting conditions, the skin resembles a shimmering veil.

In the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, Richard Olcott of Polshek Partnership Architects needed more than a veil to make visual sense of the 54-acre Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. Mr. Olcott, whose best-known projects include the Clinton presidential library in Little Rock, Ark., said, "You can't redesign the equipment, but you can try to create an overall ordering system for the site."

The plant's most prominent feature is a cluster of 100-foot-high tanks shaped - unexpectedly - like eggs. Into this surreal nest Mr. Olcott inserted a series of even taller stair towers, which he covered not in the expected dull concrete but in glazed parrot-green brick. The clustering of the towers recalls the Tuscan hill town of San Gimignano, a striking achievement given the facility's numbing scale and mundane purpose.

Greenpoint is a mostly industrial neighborhood. But in Connecticut, Mr. Holl's building is surrounded by stately homes. When the Regional Water Authority first proposed the plant, in the 1990's, it feared the kind of community opposition that can stall a big project for decades.

So it invited more than 1,000 neighborhood residents to a meeting. (Meter readers hand-delivered the invitations, according to Patricia Sweet, the company's spokeswoman.) At the meeting, the company essentially told residents: "If you let us build the plant here, we'll let you pick the architect." A committee composed almost entirely of community members interviewed several prominent architects before settling on Mr. Holl. Ms. Sweet noted: "It is more typical to let the engineering firm design the building."

It might seem that Mr. Holl, whose initial sketches are glorious watercolors, was an unlikely candidate for a job that is all about hydrodynamics. But he credits much of his inspiration to repeated meetings with engineers - as many as 30 at a time - to discuss topics like "flocculation" (the process by which particles form coagulated masses, or flocs).

It was all that talk of pipes, he said, that helped him settle on a building whose form "articulates what is happening inside." Not merely a metaphor, the building is also a sculpture that recalls the work of Richard Serra and Anish Kapoor.

Mr. Holl's building may resemble a tunnel, but one of the nation's biggest infrastructure projects - Boston's so-called Big Dig - is a tunnel. The new underground road that replaced the city's elevated highway required seven massive air vents. Their architects, who included Hubert Murray, of Wallace, Floyd Associates, initially called for angled chimneys and oversize louvers to ensure that passersby "read" the buildings as vents. "A building understood is going to be better liked more than a building not understood," said Mr. Murray.

Yet the custom-made louvers and the stainless steel meant to cover the chimneys were eliminated, in what Mr. Murray said was a round of cost-cutting, by the time the last vent was completed. Although he said he had come to like the stripped-down version, he added, "I am still mourning the absence of the stainless steel."

In Hiroshima, by contrast, Yoshio Taniguchi was able to lavish hundreds of millions of dollars on a new incinerator plant. Mr. Taniguchi, lionized for his ethereal expansion of the Museum of Modern Art, may not be the obvious choice for a building that handles 400 tons of trash a day. But the logic behind the commission was unassailable.

Like many cities, Hiroshima produces mountains of solid waste. If people saw how much trash they produced, city officials figured, they might produce less. So why not open the city's new plant to the public? And if that makes the incinerator a kind of museum, why not bring in Japan's premier museum architect to design it?

Mr. Taniguchi calls the building "my museum of garbage."

The prominent site, at the end of a wide boulevard connecting Hiroshima's downtown to its waterfront, demanded a building people would want to look at. And it was certain to block access to the harbor. So Mr. Taniguchi extended the boulevard with a raised glass walkway that shoots through the building before depositing visitors in a waterfront park.

Of course, making notable architecture - as opposed to the prefab sheds that usually encase mechanical equipment - takes money. In Hiroshima, the extra funds were allocated by a mayor determined to buff the architectural profile of a city rebuilt haphazardly after World War II.

In Connecticut, Mr. Holl said that his interventions - as well as those of the landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh - may have added two or three million dollars to the cost of the $49 million plant. At first, the water company's Representative Policy Board, which approves major expenditures, was reluctant to allocate the money. But then Professor Plattus of Yale made a presentation to the board on the value of design.

At a crucial moment, Ms. Sweet said, Mr. Plattus projected a photo of a banal concrete overpass on Route 95 alongside an image of one of the W.P.A.-era overpasses on the Merritt Parkway. The board "saw the difference immediately," Ms. Sweet recalled.

It is not only architects like Mr. Holl and Mr. Taniguchi who see the beauty in infrastructure. By photographing water tanks and factory smokestacks, Bernd and Hilla Becher became two of the most influential German photographers of the last 50 years. And there have been many efforts to re-use infrastructure architecturally. In London, the hugely popular Tate Modern occupies the shell of the old Bankside power station, and the museum has just announced plans to expand into an electrical substattion on the same site. On the Island of Tenerife, off the coast of Morocco, the architects Artengo-Menis-Pastrana have created an eerily beautiful performance space inside an abandoned gas tank.

In New York, infrastructure architecture has a storied past. The structures associated with the 19th-century Croton Aqueduct, including the Gatehouse at 135th Street and Convent Avenue (the subject of an exhibition opening March 1 at the Museum of the City of New York), have real architectural gravitas. Con Edison's Waterside Generating Station at 40th Street and First Avenue, built in 1905, is a stately Romanesque-style building. "They used to build them for the ages," Mr. Olcott said of New York's public works.

In the 1930's, the air vents for the Lincoln Tunnel were given heroic proportions. One of the vents is about to become the centerpiece of a new New York Waterway ferry terminal. But through much of the postwar period, infrastructure buildings were utilitarian at best. In Queens, Con Edison's Ravenswood plant, built in the 1960's, looks thrown together; its corrugated metal walls could have been ordered from a catalog.

More recently, five companies competed to build a recycling plant at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal; one, Hugo Neu, developed its proposal with the Manhattan architects Claire Weisz and Mark Yoes, who suggested placing gently curved roofs over the recycling equipment. Neu won the bid and is now working with the city to develop final plans, yet Ms. Weisz, of the firm Weisz & Yoes, cautioned that it is too soon to know how closely the finished facility will resemble the conceptual drawings.

In the Bronx, the city is planning to build a giant water filtration plant under Van Cortlandt Park - at a cost of around $1 billion. To win community support, the city has promised that the facility will be hidden beneath a driving range.

But that may not be possible; even a subterranean plant has to have entrances and exits - part of what Charles Sturcken, of the city's Department of Environmental Protection, refers to as the "head house." No designer has yet been chosen for the head house, Mr. Sturcken said, and the project is tied up in litigation.

Perhaps, instead of promising invisibility, the city should propose an important work of architecture.