Los Angeles, CA
That the natural penetrates even to our densest urban cores is obvious in the immense efforts expended to mitigate her effects there: vast power plants are erected to turn back the night, chiller plants are built to alleviate the heat of the day and steam generators to transform the cool of the night. Yet we are generally embarrassed by these efforts—the often beautiful artifacts engineered to provide this light, cold and heat are hidden away, where they are not able to remind us of the effort and energy required to enjoy life in unnaturally dense environments of our cities. To reveal these measures is, in a way, to celebrate the power of the natural conditions they mitigate—and to hope that in mitigating their effects we do not forget we are never actually free from them.
Commissioned through a limited design/construct competition, UCLA’s new South Campus Chiller Plant celebrates the machinery of infrastructure. While sensitive to its surroundings, the use of familiar materials and architectural treatments is critical in application, rather than imitative. The building is not a mute box. It does not insist on hiding plant machinery, but proudly displays the inherently engaging qualities of technology as an integrated and carefully considered part of the composition. Architectural honesty is projected through the sophisticated interplay of its rich contextual palette and carefully expressed mechanical and electrical systems.
The UCLA “Central Chiller-Cogeneration Plant with Facilities Management Replacement Space” is located in the southwest part of the campus on Circle Drive South just off the campus’ primary thoroughfare, Westwood Plaza Drive, across from the UCLA Medical Center. The difficult eight-acre site is bounded closely on three sides by existing campus buildings and is within two hundred feet of a residential neighborhood to the west. The site was previously occupied by Facilities Management’s central offices and craft shops which were relocated as Phase I of the project, which entailed the renovation an existing 50,000 square-foot warehouse building at one end of the site to house the campus shops being displaced by the new plant, allowing the site to be cleared for Phase 2.
Phase 2 of the project involved the construction of new quarters for the Facilities Management Group, and the chiller and cogeneration plants. This construction is divided into two general parts along an east/west dividing line through the site. This division responds to programmatic requirements that included complex, separated vehicular/pedestrian circulation, acoustical/vibration isolation, structural separation between plant and shop components, and acoustical control of all noise-emitting equipment to minimize the ambient noise levels of the nearby residential neighborhood. The north side of the complex is composed of approximately 95,000 square feet of high bay ground-level shop space for Campus Crafts with two stories of office space above for Facilities Management administrative staff. The shops and offices consolidate Facilities Management operations for the entire campus. The south side of the complex is a high bay structure with a full basement housing all of the Central Chiller and Cogeneration Plant functions, about 90,000 square feet of plant space.
The Central Chiller Plant with Cogeneration features turbine driven centrifugal and absorption chillers, pumps, water demineralization equipment, electrical distribution systems, and miscellaneous support equipment, which are used to produce 16,000 tons of cooling initially and 26,000 tons of cooling at build-out to meet future needs. Two 14.5-MW combustion turbine generators provide continuous reliable power and one 14.0-MW steam turbine generator operates on a cogeneration cycle utilizing the energy by-products of the chilled water production. In addition, the plant space encloses a stand alone Emergency Services Equipment Building designed to OSHPD specifications providing power, steam and chilled water to the critical care facilities at the UCLA Medical Center.
Staging and scheduling of the 6.5-mile chilled water distribution system was accomplished with minimal impact to campus operations. The plant provides power and chilled water for all current as well as forecasted campus needs with electrical service/system upgrades providing a new 12.47-kV system to augment the existing 4.8-kV system and providing continual pay-back revenue to UCLA Energy Systems. The payback offsets current utility costs creating enough revenue through savings in operating costs to retire the private debt financing within twenty-five years. Cogeneration is accomplished with one hundred percent standby parallel operation with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and stand-alone cogeneration with “black start” capabilities. The project also resulted in a substantial reduction in overall campus emissions through the use of low emission generating equipment and the elimination of existing individual building systems.
Infrastructure is typically, conventionally, invisible; it inhabits mysterious zones of no-space. These zones riddle the urban landscape today and hide the underpinnings of that culture: the freeway trenches and empty spaces captured by cloverleaves and on-ramps belie our command over space and time; the flood control channels and basins which along with the vast waste treatment apparatus present an oasis of life in an otherwise uninhabitable desert; and the power plants and switchgear yards make light of the cold and warm the darkness. All these must be invisible if we are to face down the uncertainty ameliorated by these devices. We are all complicitous in this non-awareness, we are all signatories to the conventions which hide them.
The cloaking effects that ensure the invisibility of zones of no-space are only barely the product of design. But mindful of the conventions of such masks, the design of the Chiller Plant sought in these effects the raw material from which to fashion a critique. This critique emphasizes the negotiation otherwise hidden by the masking conventions. The facade of the Chiller Plant both masks and frames. It can be seen, conventionally, as a screen behind which nasty stuff is hidden. It can also be seen as a base, upon which the cooling towers and boilers sit: a table with boss objects arranged on it for our inspection.
The typology of infrastructure buildings is simple: the typical “plant” is a mute, blank-walled box with similarly blank mechanical screens hiding the usual cooling towers and air-handlers on the roof. This model is the product of both economic and aesthetic forces—the machines don’t need expensive windows or other elaboration, and no one wants to see them anyway, or even notice their location. This attitude varies from one extreme of indifference, which is common in sparsely populated areas and results in the almost militant expression of economy (i.e. cheap and ugly), to the other extreme of paranoia, evident in more urban areas or expensive suburbs, where plants are often disguised as some other, less objectionable, type of building (like a country clubhouse or an office building). But underlying even these extreme dissimulations is the mute box. Since the client (and context) for the Chiller Plant is an educational institution, it seemed appropriate to bring this typology into the light and make this screening evident.
Like a theater scrim, the screen requires complicity: it announces it is hiding something as it asks you not to notice. This is obviously the condition in which enframed nature is placed, as embodied in urban infrastructure works. The hide-and-seek game played as the erstwhile louver screens dance with the equipment to be hidden, highlights the screen’s masking role. While they teasingly reveal the equipment, the screens configure themselves so that they may alternatively be read as continuations of the equipment, complicating the reading: is the equipment being hidden or elaborated?
In addition, a screen hides without substance. It is consumed in masking the thing screened. The insubstantiality of the Chiller Plant’s screen is both demonstrated by the overt thinness of the panels and artificiality of the blue shadows, for example, while at the same time being challenged; the louver returns, brick reveals and overhangs, contradict the statement of insubstantiality with demonstrations of their volumetric qualities and apparent massiveness.
While the south facade of the plant is all about the mechanical negotiation with nature, the north facade of the maintenance shops and offices embodies the workers’ negotiations with each other and their machines. The north facade is emphatically inhabited, and all of the overt formalism demonstrates this inhabitation. If the south facade dissembles, then the north facade boasts; it is operated, driven by the people during their daily activities.
The north side of the building houses the shops and offices of the campus Facilities Management department. The north facade actively looms over the working yard in an attitude of attentiveness, not just enclosing the space, but participating in it and directing the activity it overlooks. The catwalks and louver screens that cover the facade literally enliven it, as the workers circulate and otherwise hang out on this active surface. Bridges were originally planned over the yard for the workers to enter the building directly from the parking garage to the north. It was later decided that the more “polite” south entry should replace these. The restrooms and vertical circulation are combined into cores which interlock with the mechanical risers in two clearly defined tower-like moments. These identify the entry points and divide up the space of the yard by discipline. Each core hinges metaphorically in the middle, allowing the exterior elements to rotate clear of the traffic and exercise their operational nature. This conceit is carried on throughout the experience of the northern (people) half of the project, integrating the human spaces and functions with the overall expression of mechanical willfulness, as a demonstration of the negotiation between this vast machine and the humans who “drive” it.
As with its relationship to its technological mission, the building is of two minds about its size. On the one hand it is clearly proud of itself and what its immensity represents as an achievement; yet, on the other hand, it employs many of the scale-giving tricks by which architects customarily have broken-down or disguised the bulk of buildings too big for their context. In the present case these include the division of the building into plausible subgroups, the manipulation of scale by varying louver size and spacing, and the careful arrangement of contrasting, richly hued colors, with the placement of lighter colors at the roof so that the building profile can diffuse into the sky.
The dance of the mechanical screens plays a part as well, it draws the otherwise anomalous and alien equipment into a unified composition, thus limiting the building’s apparent sprawl. This also confers an architectural legitimacy on the equipment, making it part of the building—or does it make the building an extension of the equipment? The engineers were initially skeptical about such a risqué approach; they were extremely sensitive about the homeliness of their stuff. Accustomed to being required to hide their best work, the engineers’ pride in their efforts did not alleviate an enculturated insecurity about its appearance. Once it became clear to the engineers, however, that some of their equipment would be featured proudly on the roof of the project, that the aesthetically-minded architects thought it was boss, they began quietly to compete among themselves to determine whose machines should be so honored. We were then bombarded with photos or drawings of various machines and shyly asked whether perhaps this piece of equipment would not be too ugly up there, or, if not, whether we could fit this truly magnificent ammonia tank into the cycle in this or that location ...
But it was not only the engineers’ self regard that benefited from this integration. In fact, the architecture benefited more: here was a store of existing forms of far greater interest then anything the architects could have set out to invent. This equipment had only to be laid out with some minor connective design, to give an engaging experience to the viewer that easily exceeded the capacity of straight architecture alone. These objects can be read! They do something! Here is no arbitrary capricious design; personal flourish or “signature style” need not goober-up their already “magnificent” lines. They speak of our (provisional) contract with nature in a much more direct and visceral way than any classical order or applied vegetal ornament. While not figural, in the traditional sense, the equipment is far from abstract or alien. It represents an almost inexhaustible, and continuously replenished, resource for the resourceful architect.
There is a vast store of form in industry that has all the visual interest of classicism (which aloof modernism was not able to provide) and only one half of the kilo-calories. And, it does not rely on the whimsy or obscurity that much recent architecture has offered as an alternative. All this ... and meaning, too.
Location: Los Angeles, CA, US