We Want To Hang Out At This Electrical Substation. No, Really
Three years from now, if you walk past the corner of Minor Ave and Denny Way in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, just north of downtown, you’ll encounter a new electrical substation. But you might not be able to tell. Faceted, stainless steel panels 35 feet high will shroud the electrical hardware; a ramped pedestrian path, an observation area overlooking Denny Way, and a color-shifting wall will make the place… pretty? Sorry—that’s just not how people usually talk about infrastructure.
Historically, substations were classic examples of form following function—and that function was functional. These are the places that gather high-voltage energy from sources like dams or wind farms and transform it into a voltage that a house or business can use. The look of a substation is literally utilitarian. “The whole design and architecture says, ‘stay out,’” says Michael Clark, program manager for the Denny Substation at Seattle City Light.
Not Denny Substation, though. “It’s intended to be a long term amenity and service to the community,” says Carl Tully, a principal at NBBJ, the studio that designed it. It’ll have viewing portals so people can see what’s happening inside the station, and even an “interactive soundscape” that pulls in noises from the neighborhood.
Why bother? When the project began in 2003, South Lake Union was still mostly residential, with a few low commercial buildings. Now it’s home to Amazon, Facebook, and several genomes’ worth of biotech companies—plus a bunch of low-income and high-end residential projects. “We’re running out of space at the urban core,” says Matthew Richter, the liaison between the substation and the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture. Building a crummy-looking substation in the middle of all that would have meant forfeiting valuable, scant public space. Denny Substation had to become a community asset.
NBBJ’s solution to that problem was to reimagine the city’s electrical infrastructure as a recreational amenity. The agency’s structure will be big—110,564 square feet, cutting across a block and a half of land—but it doesn’t look big, thanks to canted walls that lean inward to minimize its profile. (The facility’s shorter equipment will sit near the building’s edges, to accommodate the angle.) “If the walls were straight and vertical, it would’ve been 40 feet tall and very ominous and foreboding to the residents,” says John Savo, another principal at NBBJ. An adjacent 44,000 square-foot swath of land will be public green space, including a dog park; two interior rooms at the base of the building will act as community space and art galleries.
At $124 million, the Denny station is significantly more expensive than a typical substation. It could’ve been done with less, for less. But thoughtless infrastructure is its own form of wasteful. “I think this kind of public infrastructure has always had the capacity to hold public benefit, but the pressure has never been on in the way it is now,” Richter says. If that pressure gives rise to better infrastructure—the kind that doesn’t block views or separate communities, but encourages people to come together—well, more power to it.