Guy Marriage

Electricity is the most wonderful invention that enhances our lives in ways that we now take totally for granted. Unseen, unheard, unthanked: without a second thought we throw a switch and boil a kettle, or turn on a light to illuminate our reading. We seldom think how that current comes to be there, waiting patiently inside a socket, ready to be unleashed on an unsuspecting appliance. Electricity comes to us, not direct from the giant wind turbines at Makara, but through fat humming wires across mountain valleys and a series of voltage drops, ultimately converted in small substations scattered amongst our communities.

The book you hold in your hands is a repository of rare memories, a depiction of the everyday architecture that surrounds you – one that you’ve possibly never really noticed. Architecture Electric is a product for a niche market for sure, yet it is also a celebration of curious geekdom, the search for the beauty of the mundane and the everyday. The authors of this book are on a quest. In this photographic foray into the gritty industrial architecture of 320 electrical substations found in central Wellington, they are seeking to uncover some of the visual truth in the raw industrial architecture that houses this quiet source of power.

Ever since Nikola Tesla succeeded in vanquishing Thomas Edison, with the triumph of safe AC power over the more deadly DC power, there has been a need for these small buildings: stepping down the electrical voltages that power our modern lives. The photographs you see before you depict the passing attitudes towards the wonder of electricity, with the old substations designed as mini temples, complete with quietly proud columned facades. The Wellington City Council Electricity Department’s initials proudly displayed across the shallow pediment, a large number of these small temples still exist, such as the almost classical form of 264 Thorndon Quay, or the late-Edwardian simplicity of the low-Fi temples in Tory St, Parkvale Rd, and Ira St. Their craft in design, once proudly displayed, is now downplayed in the extreme. Many of these are now painted to try and hide quietly in the busy urban streetscape: their architecture almost unnoticed. By contrast, many of the modern substations are purposefully undistinguished, hiding below staircases, or in left over crevices in building facades, even adopting camouflage to pass themselves off as more background.

The gritty urban industrial nature of the city substation makes way for a more reticent demeanor in the suburbs, where it attempts to be passed off as domestic: witness the apologetic obsequiousness of small substations in Ohiro Bay Parade, and the forelorn and unloved efforts in Breaker Bay. Only a small lightning bolt plaque gives away their silent warning: Caution! Danger of Death!

Occasionally, the suburban substation is proudly defiant, such as that in Mornington, positioned at the edge of the cliff overlooking the city. Captured in a cunning plan to look more residential, the Havelock St substation wears a jaunty peaked roof to disguise the industrial purpose within, its blank walls oblivious to the stunning view laid out in front. Other substations subtly betray the era of the architecture they were born into. At 125 Taranaki St, the streamlined green sleekness of the enclosure hints at a late Deco design time, whereas the Modern green crispness of 40 Mansfield St quite clearly and proudly displays a 50s Modern design rationale. There is still nothing else however to rival the pink and checkered postmodernist frontage in Lorne St – at once both vibrant and firmly dated to the 80s.

To design a building for a substation is a remarkably standard exercise – on the inside. Minimum dimensions are given, a lease is procured, thick fireproof walls enclose the heavy weight of the oil-cooled apparatus that resides within. A substation would make a well-behaved neighbour: no noise is ever emitted, except for a quiet hum. There are no photos of interiors in this book – no one is allowed inside. The box remains sealed and unexplored: like Schrodinger’s Cat, the contents remain unknown.

While requirements inside are strict, the outside requirements are much less rigid. It is here that the architect can exercise their imagination: and yet so few of them do so. Ruggedly strong doors are needed, opening out onto a space that can be approached 24 hours a day. The design of these modern mini temples tries to remain faithful to their context. Sizes and proportions are sometimes coordinated seamlessly with the surrounding building, at other times tragically failing in an accident of unintended disjunction, such as the ungainly doorway at 138 Wakefield St. Their facades lie mostly blank, with just a grilled surface to let the air cool the humming transformers inside, while paint is periodically splashed on the facades to rejuvenate and refresh. The outlook in the future is for even more anonymous blandness.

The authors, Nathan Horne, Jared Kennard, and Tyson Schmidt, have carefully scrutinized the building facades, picking out the quirky and the unexpected. Graffiti is scrawled on some surfaces, but surprisingly little when you consider that the doors are rarely if ever opened. If you look carefully at the mindless graffiti of the station in Salamanca Rd in Kelburn, you will note that amongst all that tagging, a carefully coloured chimney has been painted on the façade – a quiet joke amongst our city’s growing paste-up community.

My favourite amongst all these images gives me strong hope for the future of our city’s design. The twin peaked splendidness of the Kaiwharawhara substation is a superb piece of background urban infrastructure, which combines not just an Electrical substation and a Waterworks, but has carefully separated these with an opportunely sited bus shelter. It is that sort of joined-up thinking that we need in our modern cities: utility buildings providing useful support to those that live amongst them.

This collection of crisply taken pictures will act as a marker in history, celebrating this key role of the quiet power within our communities. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Guy Marriage, Architect

Wellington 2010.

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