Stunning Sustainable Building Is a ... Hydroelectric Plant?

Punibach power plant
©. Monovolume Architecture

© Monovolume Architecture

In the South Tyrol province of Italy, Monovolume Architecture has completed a hydro-electric power plant that is elegantly buried into the hills. They describe it in Designboom, saying that it....

converts natural forces into useful energy while maintaining an artfully low profile in the alpine environment. A rather simple solution was found for a space full of loud, bulky machinery while visually making an inconsequential impact of the site. A free-flowing concrete structure peels out of the hills, opening a fissure in the hillside supporting a green roof that camouflages the otherwise industrial building. Thin wood planks of varying sizes are revealed in this split in the ground plane to form a lamellar wall, where the warm light from the interior glows in the pitch-dark surroundings.
power plant

© Monovolume Architecture

Given the scenic location, I can see why they took such care to make it blend into the landscape, why they spent the money to make it so beautiful and to put on such a lovely green roof. It matters to them. But it is also a European thing, a willingness to do what it takes to put the most banal functions into beautiful buildings. They care about it.

Baysville Water Treatment Plant

Baysville, Muskoka via Google Street View/Screen capture

I spend my summer working from Muskoka, Ontario, described by National Geographic Traveler as one of the Best Places of 2012 and on a par with South Tyrol for beauty. Tourism is its biggest industry; you would think they would care. But when they build a water treatment plant, like this one near me in Baysville, it is a horrible barn with a mansard roof. What might have been an attraction, perhaps a viewing platform, is an eyesore, probably designed by a draftsperson working for the engineering firm. Or perhaps it was a design-build deal, where nothing mattered but the lowest price, given that it is built out of asphalt shingles.

Croton Dam

Dawn Houghtaling-Montague/CC BY 2.0

They used to care about this kind of thing in North America; the Croton Dam and the waterworks supplying New York City are a sight to behold. (See Stanley Greenberg's wonderful photos here)

Toronto Power Station

Toronto Power Generating Station, Niagara Falls/ Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

A stone's throw north of the border, they hired the leading architect of the time, E.J. Lennox, to design the Toronto Power Generating Station at Niagara Falls. No expense was spared to make it a monument. They cared.

In his recent book The Shape of Green, Lance Hosey wrote about the importance of beauty:

"In the end," writes Sengalese poet Baba Dioum, " we conserve only what we love." We don't love something because it is nontoxic and biodegradable,- we love it because it moves the head and heart..... When we treasure something, we're less prone to kill it, so desire fuels preservation. Love it or lose it. In this sense, the old mantra could be replaced by a new one: If it's not beautiful, it's not sustainable. Aesthetic attraction is not a superficial concern- It's an environmental imperative.

I can't add anything to that.