Gerald Melling


High-voltage man / kisses night / to bring to light /

those who need / to hide their shadow-deed.


From Safe as Milk, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band

Along with the internal combustion engine, public sewage, and Stephenson’s Rocket, electricity is a fundamental strand in the infrastructural root of modernism. From the considerable distance of the early 21st century, however, it is difficult to imagine the profound impact of power distribution into the life of the hitherto gas-lit and coal-fired community.  And the Lord said, let there be light!

On his 1968 album Safe as Milk, Don Van Vliet’s voice is a surge of power – dark and guttural, yet pulsatingly incandescent. The wild instrumentalism in the music may well be an historical homage to the electrification of the guitar, but the suggestion – in the lyrics of the song Electricity – that the secrets of darkness are exposed by the ‘night kisses’ of ‘high-voltage man’ illuminates a curious architectural paradox.

For the most part, those buildings charged with hosting such electric idealism suffer serious architectural voltage drop, their lights hidden under batteries of bushels. The deed of brightness seeks its own shadow, it seems, and the night is kissed by a tentative peck on the cheek.

As a nomenclature, The Architecture Electric is an appropriate buzz. It invokes the humming of overhead wires in a soft rainfall, the primal screech of feedback from giant amplifiers, and the incandescent, white-hot flicker of urban neon. It excites.

The electricity sub-station, however, is steadfastly shockproof. A storage facility and switch room (a sub-ordination of power, for local supply), it is located at the consumer end of that snaky conduit from the mighty powerhouse, its source. And in stark contrast to the latter’s more bombastic intrusion into landscape, the sub-station is either coyly concealed or morphologically disguised within the relevant built fabric – sub-urban, mostly – of its location.

Ranging from the cute to the quietly well-mannered, the beacon for this cultural transformer – rather than flutter its innate oscillations – blinks modestly in the dim twilight of civic obedience. Like any other servant of a local-authority, it is stoically and unapologetically there, approachable only at election time, when it becomes plastered in the promise of political candidature. Light, at the end of a tunnel…

Sub-sidiary it may be, but the sub-station is not sub-terranean. Nor is it – except, perhaps, when wearing the alternative colours of an intelligent graffiti – in any way sub-versive.

Those people most interested in the sub-station are likely to be architects. The prospect of functional sub-stitution of its capricious site by a more personal occupation is palpable, and even the most cynical purveyor of environmental chaos indulges this curious delinquency, as if attracted by unthreatening behaviour. The sub-station is an uninhabited building, and – in that critical sense – has no attributable client. Like a frustrated portrait artist harrassed by the sitter, the architect dreams of a client-free life as a cultural sub-limation.

And yet the designs of these potentially sub-jective lighthouses are rarely attributed to any particular architect. A peremptory overseeing by a registered eminence is no doubt present, but the shoulder peered over is  more usually that of a draughtsman – a harmless sub-junction to a sub-ordinated self-expression.

Sub-station camouflage is a comedy of cuckoo’s nests. The early 20th century opted for a sepulchral Antique Classicism as an appropriate cloak for its modern technology, as if to enshrine it in the mystery of the charnel house, or Ramses’ smelly tomb. In the 1930’s, Art Deco’s machine-age hieroglyphics offered pallid contextual relativity to notions of the new and futuristic, but thereafter architecture – with a capital A, that is – meekly surrendered to a prosaic vernacular.

By mid-century, the sub-station had colonised the suburban house, quietly coddling its luminous egg behind the brick-veneer walls and sash windows of Builders Executive, the drawn lace curtains of Neo-Georgian, and the stucco-and-tile of Spanish Mission. Unenergised by such deceit, it ultimately re-emerged as a mock Colonial shopfront or a hip-roofed Arts-and-Crafts pavilion, until – more latterly –  consolidating into an unadorned, flat-roofed, concrete ‘Modernist’ box.

This gradual capitulation to minimal efficiency is echoed by the ‘contemporary’ urban sub-station, an emphatically sub-standard accommodation usually found lurking behind a metal-grilled door in the bowels of a large commercial building, alongside overflowing Wheely Bins, fire hydrants, and the gloomy orifice of a basement car-park.

Lighthouse beacon straight ahead / straight ahead across black seas / to bring eeee-lec-tri-ci-teeeee!

So much for Captain Beefheart’s seductive dance – music trips the light fantastic far more deftly than the leaden feet of architecture, and whilst there is much to enjoy in the quaint idiosyncrasy of the stumpy little sub-station, as a celebrant of its function it’s but a candle in the wind.

Gerald Melling


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