Given the wow-factor the interiors of former power stations have generated as new public spaces – witness Tate Modern, the design of this new power station in Zurich by Illiz Architects, takes the next logical step: purposely opening up its bowels for the public to view whilst it operates, showing off the state-of-the-art infrastructional – rather than cultural – riches for which people’s taxes are paying. Dan Borden enjoys the industrial wunderkammer that is the result.
The Swiss are known as conceptual inside-the-boxers, so the choice of Illiz Architects to design a Zurich electrical substation may signal a change of heart. Illiz, a trio of female architects, all German-born, have transformed a normally fortified box protecting high voltage machinery into a cabinet of wonders by peeling back its skin and turning the programme inside out.
The building replaces a 60-year-old transformer substation owned by Electricity Works Zurich (ewz), the city-owned power supplier. The programme had two components, big machines and the people who run them. Three massive transformers, hidden deep below ground, convert raw AC current to domesticated DC. Above ground is a service depot with offices, locker rooms and indoor parking for employees and their vehicles.
Illiz Architects inserted a third component: Zurich’s citizens. A picture window at sidewalk level reveals the building’s most sacred space: the transformer level, twelve metres below grade, while an internal pathway lets visitors descend into that space to marvel at its buzzing machinery. Illiz’s radical scheme literally puts the public back into public works.
Hiding an electrical substation under an office building might seem a reasonable security precaution. By instead inviting the public in, ewz is showing off its 23 million EUR investment and generating great PR. When the new substation opened its doors on August 29, the queue to get inside stretched around the block.
The building is twelve miles north of Zurich’s old city, past suburbs of geranium-draped stucco houses, in the Oerlikon urban revitalisation zone. It lies just inside a swathe of land zoned for industrial use – its neighbours are massive corrugated steel sheds, but a few steps away are apartments, schools and two parks.
The Oerlikon Substation embraces the schizophrenic nature of its site. At first glance, it’s another windowless metal box, though here the skin isn’t corrugated steel but perforated zinc panels. When ewz workers start their day, the building literally comes to life as the panels fold up and out, like a toolbox, to reveal windows, garage doors and the human activity behind them.
The large display window, dubbed the Peep Box, seduces passers-by both with its glimpse into the buildings’ bowels and a glittering mirrored installation by Swiss artist Yves Netzhammer. Illiz’s Stefanie Wölgrath says the designers were inspired by Guckkasten, an 18th Century fairground attraction that transported European viewers to exotic lands via illusionistic stage sets within a framing proscenium. Wölgrath calls Guckkasten, “one of the first forms of mass media that combined knowledge transfer with entertainment.” Illiz’s substation reaches out, like an ambassador for Oerlikon’s industrial zone – a warm handshake in a roomful of cool customers.
After descending from street level, visitors traverse the length of the building on a walkway eight metres above the floor to reach the Peep Box and Netzhammer’s artwork. This high tech underworld is made all the more eerie by the diffused lighting and alien colour scheme – exposed concrete surfaces are painted green with red and orange safety signage. A swarm of round “peepholes” are punched through the thick concrete walls, exposing control rooms and the transformers themselves whose ambient buzzing brings the space to life, like a giant beehive.
Illiz Architect’s three partners, Petra Meng, Sabrina Mehlan and Stephanie Wögrath, bonded while studying architecture together in the German town of Aachen. Following stints at international firms, the three regrouped in 2008 to form Illiz with offices in Vienna and Zurich.
Their earlier commissions have included houses and social institutions like schools and a retirement home, and by inserting a social component into this industrial project, Illiz inventively altered the relationship between the public and urban infrastructure. With power company ewz already having signed them up for a second substation design, as well as a commission for a public swimming pool, Illiz now seem to be the go-to architects for Zurich public works.
– Dan Borden, after working as an architect in New York, settled in Berlin to write and make films.