Infrastructure Should Be Beautiful, Like This Stormwater Facility in Toronto

GH3* Architects show there is no reason that infrastructure should be so ugly.

SWF building at night with rail in background

Adrian Onesik

In Europe, the design of infrastructure is taken seriously. They hire architects like Bjarke Ingels to design incinerators. This is rarely the case in North America, where most infrastructure is designed by engineers who bid the lowest price in a proposal call. We should do better.

As architect Toon Dressen has written for The Globe & Mail:

"When we build physical infrastructure, we expect that it is going to last for decades, even generations...That means more than just making it functional. The three classic ideals of architecture apply here too: It must function, it must be durable and it must be beautiful. We sometimes seem to forget about that last part."
Water treatment plant, Baysville Ontario
Water treatment plant, Baysville Ontario.

Google Maps

I think of this every time I drive by this wastewater treatment plant in Lake of Bays, Ontario—a supremely ugly building surrounded by a chain-link fence in one of the most beautiful parts of the Province of Ontario, sitting among the trees and rocks of the Canadian Shield. The engineers designed it with a mansard roof covered with asphalt shingles, the cheapest building material in the lumberyard. This is standard practice in North America.

treatment building in fog

Adrian Ozenik

Then we have Storm Water Facility (SWF) designed by GH3*, working with the engineers RV Anderson, and there are no asphalt shingles or mansard roofs in sight. According to GH3*: "The client, Waterfront Toronto, wanted a landmark building that would help to signal a new and distinctive city precinct."

view from under gardiner

Adrian Ozenik

This is not in the most beautiful part of Ontario. It is surrounded by railway yards, an elevated expressway, and a ditch that is the bottom of the Don River—probably one of the ugliest parts of the city and Province. But it is going through a serious upgrade, and "the monolithic, cast-in-situ concrete form is both a complement and striking counterpoint to the infrastructural and aesthetic complexity."

SWF surrounded by tracks

Adrian Ozenik

"The StormWater Facility (SWF) treats urban run-off from the new West Don Lands and Quayside neighbourhood developments. Functionally, the SWF stands at the intersection of technological and architectural advancement. Housing state-of-the-art treatment systems, it expresses a civic responsibility towards ensuring safe and clean water ecology."

SWF from above

Adrian Ozenik

The architects describe the components of the facility:

"The project combines three major elements into an integrated urban, landscape and architectural statement. The first is the stormwater reservoir, a 20-meter diameter shaft covered by a radial steel grate that acts as an inverted siphon to receive untreated stormwater from the surrounding development. Directly above is a working ground plane of asphalt and concrete with channels and gutters that link the reservoir shaft with the treatment plant. Finally, the most prominent element of the facility is the 600-square metre stormwater treatment plant itself."
Inside the SWF

Adrian Ozenik

Architectural critic Alex Bozikovic describes going into the functional interior: "Inside, we left the realm of art and entered the realm of ballasted flocculation." This is a process often used in Europe for small sites or "to meet permit requirements during limited-duration wet-weather events without investing a large sum of capital," such as cleaning up stormwater runoff that's full of engine oil and dog poop.

view from above

Adrian Ozenik

Bozikovic also notes Pat Hanson of GH3* didn't get her way on everything; "The architects originally imagined the building clad with limestone, with a matching plinth around it. In GH3′s drawings, that design looks like a Greek ruin of mysterious purpose. But limestone is not cheap, and so the building’s exterior is concrete."

In the end, the architects made a virtue of necessity, writing:

"Materially, both the building and landscape are constructed with exposed concrete resulting in the abstraction of ground and wall, and environmentally mitigating solar heat gain and extending the service life of the facility. Low energy inputs are achieved with a highly insulated envelope, daylighting, passive cooling, and ventilation."
SWF evening

Adrian Ozenik

This is not the first time that we have written that infrastructure can be beautiful, but in Montreal or Copenhagen the buildings were in highly visible sites. In Toronto, the SWF is still in a wasteland, but at least they are planning ahead. This is the kind of design thinking that should happen with all infrastructure investments. As Toon Dressen noted, we used to do this well.

R C Harris Water Treatment Plant, Toronto
R C Harris Water Treatment Plant, Toronto.

Richard King

"Water treatment plants, such as the R.C. Harris plant in Toronto and the Lemieux Island plant in Ottawa, are acclaimed historic works of architecture that have provided valuable public infrastructure to communities for generations. New and replacement infrastructure should be as beautiful, and as functional."
SWF in clouds

Adrian Ozenik

Hanson of GH3*, the engineers at RV Anderson, and their client Waterfront Toronto, have demonstrated that when people even bother to think about issues of beauty and design, we still can do this—we actually can have nice things.