Architecture : Innovative Designs Can Enliven Even Those Difficult Buildings

What’s an architect to do when designing a building for a socially undesirable or an aesthetically ugly activity?

“Do you disguise, say, a sewage treatment plant’s function by prettying it up with fake mansard roofs and roses ‘round the door?” architect Anthony Lumsden asked.

“Or do you take the more sophisticated route of developing a design that honestly expresses what goes on inside, and find a way to turn that action into interesting architecture?”

Lumsden, who advocates the latter, is chief of design for Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall, an engineering and architecture company overseeing the $600-million modernization of the Hyperion waste-water treatment plant in El Segundo. By 1998, the firm will have supervised the completion of more than 40 new buildings at the site, part of the city’s $2-billion public works program to upgrade Los Angeles’ ailing sewage system.


“Hyperion has always been shrouded in mystery,” said Mary Anne Pierson, recently appointed to develop a public tour program of the 144-acre facility wedged between the city of El Segundo and Dockweiler State Beach. “To most people it’s a smelly place where dirty things happen--a kind of pollution factory. Hyperion’s function is so unattractive, the place is not even named on the standard Thomas Bros. city map.”

That negative image will change with Hyperion’s new generation of architecture, Pierson believes.

One of Lumsden’s first designs is the warehouse and maintenance facility on the prominent corner where Imperial Highway joins Vista del Mar Boulevard. The long, low, largely windowless building, soon to be completed, is enlivened with imaginatively sloped metal-clad roof surfaces, curved stucco walls and bold primary colors.

“The structure’s shapes are sculpted into forms that engage the eye of the passing motorist,” Lumsden explained. “Instead of the usual boring industrial facility, we have a building that adds to the streetscape without pretending to be a nursing home or an upscale shopping center.”


Other structures being built by the firm include a 200-foot-long compressor building that sits between the aeration basins where the active organic “sludge” is blasted with high-pressure oxygen and “clarified” for secondary treatment into inert matter. Sleek yet muscular, the compressor building’s aluminum rooftop drums and loops of high-tech piping give the impression of a clean yet honest energy that does not deny the building’s function.

Lumsden and his firm are not neophytes in the art of transforming ugly duckling buildings into architectural swans. Many designers regard the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area of Van Nuys, built by DMJM in 1984, as the most attractive public service facility in Southern California.

Set in a Japanese garden, the Tillman administration and laboratory building is the centerpiece of a plant that recycles waste water. Lumsden’s trademark sloped metal roofs and sleek concrete curves express the building’s technical function, yet integrate the design into a park-like landscape.

“At Tillman we made an architectural play of glass and metal folds and ripples wrapped around an exposed structural skeleton,” he said. “This envelope cascades over the building’s bare bones as a metaphor for the facility’s water-reclaiming activity.”

A New Spirit

Tillman’s acclaim sparked a new spirit among those concerned with the architecture of the city’s public service projects.

In recent years, the Department of Water and Power has upgraded the design level of many of its sprawling facilities. An architectural exhibit in the DWP’s downtown headquarters displays five major planned developments crafted to a standard well above the department’s post-World War II norm.

The Valley Generating Station in Altadena by Miralles Associates Inc., the Valley District Headquarters in Van Nuys by Ellerbe-Becket Associates, and the Sun Valley District Headquarters by Leason Pomeroy Associates are among the best of the new DWP designs. All of these potentially unattractive projects manage the difficult trick of being architecturally honest and aesthetically pleasing.


“In the past the DWP often showed us buildings that were, quite frankly, hokey,” said Merry Norris, president of the city’s Cultural Affairs Commission, which has the statutory right of design approval over all buildings proposed on public land. “They were so dishonest in character--generating stations masquerading as country clubs, for instance--that we had to reject them out of hand.”

According to the commission’s architectural guidelines, the design of any city-financed building must be “true to the nature of the activities it contains,” use the best materials available within the budget and take account of the buildings, streets and landscapes that surround it “to create pleasant environments for people who may work in the project and for those who visit and pass by.”

In the last year or so, Norris said, the DWP has made “a truly herculean effort to raise the level of its submissions to the commission. It’s truly marvelous that the public sector has at last begun to set an example of architectural and social quality in its projects.”

The Cultural Affairs Commission also has become far more involved in the issues of quality design, observed William Gossy, senior architect for the DWP’s design and construction division. “The result is that, in the 26 years I’ve been here, I’ve seldom seen such excitement about good architecture generated within the department,” he said.

Several designers recently engaged by the DWP and the Board of Public Works credited the Cultural Affairs Commission for greatly strengthening their hands in dealing with the city’s public service facility bureaucracy.

“The commission kept rejecting bad designs until the agencies got the message,” Lumsden said. “The priority of public architecture has been lifted from the dumps to the top of the pile. Ugliness and dishonesty are out the window, at last.”