Curved metal facade embodies spirit of mobility at LAX.
The commission to design a new Central Utility Plant (CUP) for Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) came with a major caveat: the original 1960s-era CUP would remain online throughout construction, providing heating and cooling to adjacent passenger terminals until the new plant was ready to take over.“We had to keep the existing CUP up and running, build the new one, do the cutover, then tear down the old CUP and build a thermal energy storage tank in its place,” explained Gruen Associates project designer Craig Biggi. “It was a very challenging project from that standpoint—working in a 24/7 environment, and getting everything up and running within a small footprint.” But despite these and other hurdles, the design-build team (which included Clark/McCarthy, A Joint Venture as general contractors, Arup as A/E design lead, and Gruen Associates as architect) succeeded in delivering the new CUP in time to support LAX’s newest terminal. Its curved stainless steel and glass facade captures the airport‘s spirit of mobility, and helps restore a sense of cohesion to an otherwise fragmented built landscape.
LAX is a busy place, both aesthetically and with respect to passenger movement. “There’s a lot of visual activity happening there,” explained Biggi. “It’s been built up over time, so there’s this layering effect. This was meant to be an architectural design that not only simplifies some of the visual confusion, but addresses the context of the airport itself as a site that has a lot of movement.” When shaping the building envelope, the designers looked at concepts of laminar flow, of which one example is the passage of air over an aircraft wing. “What we came up with was a streamlined architectural expression that ties together three distinct programmatic elements,” said Biggi. “The project uses this expression to tie into the existing context by flowing around corners, then opens up at certain locations to allow the program to have ventilation and views.”
The CUP’s primary facade is clad in stainless steel composite panels within a pressurized rain screen system. The architects chose stainless steel, explained partner-in-charge and project manager Debra Gerod, to respond to the potentially corrosive effects of jet fuel and other chemicals as well as the salty Southern California air. In addition, “we had to work to get a finish that wouldn’t create reflections,” said Gerod. “We’re right underneath the control tower. Being mindful that the sun can be at any angle, bouncing off airplanes, that [became a] careful performance-based element” of the design.
Non-curved sections of the CUP’s envelope feature corrugated aluminum panels, which reduce the risk of reflection and help camouflage functional components including large doors that allow the installation and replacement of equipment. “How we were able to put these giant openings into the side of the facade and have it be blended in and aligned with the corrugated metal paneling—these were some of the things we really paid a lot of attention to,” said Gerod. Similarly, the ribbon windows on the stainless steel facade help conceal exhaust louvers, in addition to providing views from the engineers’ offices. “We always looked at opportunities for streamlining the aesthetic of the exterior,” said Biggi. “We were looking for simple massing that looked fluid in its resolution.”
Gruen Associates designed the new CUP as a visual landmark for passersby, installing a massive window on the north facade in order to reveal the interior of the chiller room. “This is a bit of an homage to the old CUP,” explained Gerod. “When it was first built, it was a really nice building: round, with lots of glass. By the time we got to it, things were spilling out in all directions. But as originally designed, it had a view into the inner workings of the plant.” Meanwhile, the architects used blue-colored LEDs and reflectors moved by the wind to create a lighting effect on the adjacent thermal energy storage tank—which, like the nearby cooling towers, is also clad in stainless steel—that mimics the rippling motion of a swimming pool at night. “The lighting effect is meant to address passengers as they’re driving down Center Way, and give some animation to the large mass of the storage tank,” said Biggi. Here, too, the designers were careful to plan the lighting so as not to interfere with air traffic control functions.
LAX’s new CUP, which is targeting LEED Gold certification, promises a 25 percent increase in efficiency over the 50-year-old plant it replaces. With continued expansion in the offing, it did not arrive on the scene any too soon. Though much of the design was shaped by current conditions at the airport, including both functional considerations and an aesthetic embrace of the airport’s hectic pace, Gruen Associates simultaneously thought ahead, to a larger—but hopefully visually more coherent—LAX. Should a proposed terminal extension to the west come to pass, the CUP’s curved stainless steel facade will provide a backdrop for the newer buildings, setting the stage for a more deliberate approach to the airport’s ongoing transformation.