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The Works

These Photos Prove Utilitarian Design Can Be Beautiful

The infrastructure we build for transportation, utilities and waste management doesn’t have to be ugly.

Stormwater treatment and pretty public space blend at Sherbourne Common in Toronto. (Photo by Randolph Croft)

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Bridges aside, North American infrastructure tends to place function over form. From freeway overpasses like giant clusters of tangled wires to data centers in hanger-sized warehouses, U.S. infrastructure is often impressive in scope; it’s the inspiration of numerous coffee table books; and it forms the backbone of nearly everything we do.

But it’s not, generally speaking, pretty.

Of course, that’s a subjective statement. Brian Hayes believes sewage-treatment plants are beautiful, and he wrote one of those coffee table books. But many of the mammoth works we’ve erected to get around, transport electricity and hide away waste are composed of utilitarian forms and structures — monuments to industrialization. As Todd Lappin wrote for Pictory, “infrastructure allows us the illusion that we can insulate ourselves from the forces of nature.”

But architects and designers are trying to blend utility with beauty (and imagine better systems overall, as Orion Magazine has lately explored). Borrowing from the surrounding built and natural environments, these designs elevate necessary structures into works of public art.

Port Miami Tunnel

Port Miami Tunnel (Courtesy of Robin Hill)

Side view of the Port Miami Tunnel (Courtesy of Robin Hill)

In press materials, this tunnel is billed as a “highly choreographed, cinematic sequence,” not the poorly lit-but-structurally sound passageways we’ve come to expect.

Designers cite majestic influences for this new project: the Roman Aqueducts, the Paris Tunnel and even the Civilian Conservation Corps National Parks projects. Laurinda Spear with ArquitectonicaGEO (the landscape architects behind the project) writes in an email that the latter provides examples of “beautiful civil infrastructure work made with true craftsmanship.”

But even more interesting are the bits and pieces of local landscape designers incorporated. Because the tunnel actually travels under Biscayne Bay, images of sharks, turtles and sea grass line its walls. Outside, native plants from the Everglades surround the entrance.

Marsh Park

Marsh Park (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Marsh Park near the Los Angeles River (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

The Los Angeles River is known for its not-so-pretty, freeway-like design. But the city is undertaking a large-scale revitalization effort to give the river back to its people. And with California’s deep drought, engineers and public leaders are even eying the stormwater that rushes and pours out, unused, to the ocean through this concrete channel.

Increasingly, then, a number of parks and side channels incorporate water storage and purification systems. Greenways, green streets and underground biofiltration systems are all underway, but most impressive is the nearly four acres of Marsh Park in the Elysian Valley neighborhood. Bioswales lined with river rocks and native plants wind through the park, leading down to the river, while certain areas slope down into small dips to collect water, which then seeps through native plants, rocks and clay into a storage aquifer below.

Freshkills Park

Rendering of Freshkills Park (Courtesy of NYC Parks)

Once the site of the world’s largest landfill, this ambitious Staten Island park project (overseen by James Corner of Highline fame) is still in its very early stages. However, plans show the former wetland and dump becoming a series of playgrounds, soccer fields and recreation areas, complete with bioswales to treat water, bike paths, roads and even bus stops.

Plans are also in place for the park to generate clean energy. A solar farm is planned for one of its wide-open spaces, capable of generating up to 10 megawatts of energy, which will be able to power up to 2,000 homes. Photos also show large wind turbines — another of the city’s long-term goals. Meanwhile, methane pumps already rise from the landscaped-over dump, harvesting $12 million annually worth of natural gas.

Sherbourne Common

Sherbourne Common channel (Courtesy of WaterfronToronto)

Sherbourne Common pavilion (Courtesy of Shai Gil)

This public space in Toronto is more than a seamless, tree-lined gathering space; its stormwater treatment facility is both state-of-the-art and artistic. A renewably powered ultraviolet facility treats neighborhood-wide runoff, which then flows back out into a 240-meter channel that curves gently through the park to resemble a creek.

San Diego Waterfront

San Diego Embarcadero (Courtesy of Civitas)

Another port-owned project, this re-imagined waterfront that I recently covered is also a critical piece of city infrastructure.

Combining docks with roads and now a large, smooth esplanade, San Diego’s recently unveiled waterfront also features a wide water quality band full of soil, gravel and mulch, which purifies city runoff before it spills into the bay. The new waterfront is also a much smoother, more peaceful transition between the city and the bay, once separated by superblocks and large parking lots.

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian

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Tags: urban designarchitecture

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