The Architecture of Electrical Power, Then and Now

Dazzling power structures both old and new, photographed by an expert.

Image
Becker Architekten

How do you design for something invisible? Or rather, how do you design a building that produces something absolutely vital and incredibly potent, but evident only in wires hidden behind walls and under streets?

Though most of the developing world struggles to establish a steady supply of electricity, the first world enjoys an electrical infrastructure that rarely blacks out. That network of generation and distribution is so established that many of its old infrastructural buildings are forgotten or dismantled. Power stations from past generations contained immense engines that, though they were hidden, were machined with an impressive precision that pushed the envelope of industry’s potential. These days those engines are outdated, and other endeavors such as 3D printing and information technology stand at the forefront of technology.

Hydroelectric Power Station by Becker Architekten (interior).

Christopher Payne

Nevertheless, architects still design power stations such as the one above. We’ve collected some dazzling contemporary electrical structures, and talked to photographer—and substation expert—Christopher Payne.


IRT Substation #14 Rotary Converters. Christopher Payne

Payne has an architectural background and was drawn to New York City’s lost world of electrical infrastructure just as many of its old stations were closing down. His complete take on the stations can be found in his book New York’s Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway. We sat down to discuss the architecture of the forgotten substations and what it might mean for designers today.

Architizer: Many of your photography projects focus on what survives of America’s old industrial and institutional facilities: putting together decayed traces to see what was once there. Are you more drawn to the aspect of decay or the unique historical moment that these places helped shape? Or both?

Chris Payne: The decay evident in my photographs is a byproduct of abandonment, and while it adds character, it can be distracting. My favorite places to photograph are the ones that look like time capsules, where everything is intact as if the occupants just left. So I would say that I am drawn more to the unique historical moment to which these places belong. The substations I photographed were designed for a particular function: to house equipment to move subway trains and trolleys, in an age when electricity and mass transit—and the combination of the two—was still relatively new. For my substation project, I was a able to photograph spaces that had changed very little since the turn of the century.


IRT Substation Switchboard. Christopher Payne


Hydroelectric Power Station Punibach by monovolume architecture + design. Read more on the project in the Architizer database!

In your Substations project you focused on abandoned power stations throughout New York City. Beyond their qualities as ruins, is there a certain industrial aesthetic you enjoy in the Substations’ architecture?

I loved how everything in the substations was on display. Behind ordinary facades were cavernous interiors filled with giant rotary converters and marble control panels lined with copper switches, lights, and dials that looked like the backdrop in an old science fiction movie. While I did not always understand what I was looking at, it was easy to trace the path of electricity as it flowed from from one end of the building to the other, out to the third rail. The loud whirl of the machines, the floor vibrations, the blowing air, the glowing lights and sparks all made for a wonderful visceral experience, and to any passerby looking in, the purpose of the place was clear: POWER!


BMT South 6th Street Substation Copper Knife Switch. Christopher Payne


Nuon Auxiliary Power Plant by DHV architects. Read more on the project in the Architizer database.

Architects are still designing power stations and other industrial facilities today. As you photographed the neglected Substations did you ever imagine how you would design a similar kind of industrial facility today? If so, would you find it a difficult task or rather would these older structures serve as helpful precedents?

I didn’t give this much thought because the new facilities are not photogenic and bear little resemblance to their predecessors, both inside and out. The old substations were built for a specific technology that is now completely outdated. It’s like comparing analog to digital, or a turntable to an iPod. The new facilities are little more than windowless boxes. The giant rotary converters have been replaced by metal cabinets the size of large refrigerators, with no moving parts, and whereas the old substations required two operators to be on duty round the clock, the new substations are entirely automatic. I don’t think the older structures would serve as helpful precedents, but it would be nice to see architects draw upon them for creative inspiration.


IRT Substation #14 West 96th Street. Christopher Payne


Hydroelectric Power Station Winnebach by monovolume architecture + design. Read more on the project in the Architizer database


IRT Substation Rotary Converter. Christopher Payne


Hydroelectric Power Station by Becker Architekten. Read more on the project in the Architizer database

This story originally appeared on Architizer, an Atlantic partner site.

About the Author

  • Zachary Edelson is an Architizer writer and a Master of Architecture student at Columbia University GSAPP.