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Public buildings should be a civic gesture, not just green

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Integrated 21st-century designs which are simultaneously gracious civic gestures are still a rarity, writes Hattie Hartman

No visit to Los Angeles is complete without a visit to Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. Although the design blatantly ignores microclimate (some of the exterior stainless steel panels had to be sanded to reduce the impact of glare on adjacent buildings), the building exudes a grandeur appropriate to 21st-century civic architecture. And it is surprisingly contextual.

Disney Hall

Just a block away and visible from the Disney’s exquisitely landscaped terraces sits Albert C Martin and Associates’ Department of Water and Power Building of 1963. In his eulogy to Los Angeles written less than a decade later, Reyner Banham refers to it as ‘the only gesture of public architecture that matches the style and scale of the city’. One can’t help but wonder what he would have made of the Disney.

Banham’s treatise on LA, for which he famously learned to drive, postdated The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment by just three years. A close reading uncovers many insights about the environmental responsiveness of LA’s buildings, from Irving Gill’s residences to the vernacular of car dealerships and hamburger stands. He notes that Martin’s Water and Power building ‘sits in firm control of the whole basis of human existence in Los Angeles’. That means water - and power.


A building with a similar programme, San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC), completed last year and is separated by half a century from the LA utility headquarters lauded by Banham. Designed by local practice KMD Architects with Stevens & Associates, the 13-storey glazed tower incorporates a litany of sustainable features, including four wind turbines on the northern entrance facade screened by a building-high art installation of hinged polycarbonate panels which flutter in the wind.

Eye catching as this may be, it shares more with Banham’s architecture of symbolic assemblage (which he likens to an open-faced hamburger) than it does to the principle of integrated design which he extols elsewhere. On the plus side, PUC features an exposed earthquake-resistant concrete structure, and is predicted to use approximately one third of the energy of a comparable office building.

Integrated 21st-century designs which are simultaneously gracious civic gestures are still a rarity.

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