Switching stations, a necessary part of our electrified lives, are normally ugly as hell. From afar, the assemblage can look like sculpture, all painted metal and catenaries, but up close, the infrastructure in harder to appreciate, and even harder to accept in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Out in Newark, electricity provider PSE&G heard neighbors when they demanded the company’s new switching station be a) beautiful and b) a real community asset. It took four years of planning to get there, but on a recent Wednesday, a stylish crowd of Newark residents gathered to celebrate the opening of an Adjaye Associates–designed switching station in the city’s Fairmount Heights neighborhood.
The 177,000-square-foot Fairmont Heights Switching Station commands a good chunk of a full city block, but it harmonizes easily with its more modest, three-story neighbors. To strike a coolheaded balance between the industrial structure and the existing residential fabric, Adjaye Associates’ New York office worked with local firm WSM Associates to encase the switching station’s unsightly components behind an art wall, a 1,790-foot-long concrete and aluminum edifice embedded with permanent works by 14 artists. While two of the works anchor the concrete portion of the facade, most of the pieces are mounted up high, near the top of the 30-foot walls, in niches that interrupt tastefully gold and subtly curved perforated aluminum screens.
The most remarkable feature, however, is a concrete-columned agora at the front of the building whose two rows of 34-foot-high red columns support geometric canopies that cast complicated shadows on the sidewalk below. The arrangement can hold other artworks in suspension, but it also defines an otherwise throwaway cutout in the perimeter that can now be used for a market or other community events.
In his remarks, Mayor Ras Baraka joked about Newark’s seemingly forever-ongoing revitalization. Alluding to the process that created the building he stood in front of, Baraka called art and collaboration—between public and private, between community and architect—the “secret sauce” of successful neighborhood revitalization.
Like other new, high-design public amenities in the tristate area, this project was brought on by Hurricane Sandy. In the immediate aftermath of the 2012 storm, local utilities took a beating, leaving around nine in ten of Newark’s residents without power. In response, PSE&G began upgrading its infrastructure to anticipate overloads, and it planned a switching station in Fairmount Heights to improve its resilience in the face of extreme weather events. Adjaye Associates worked with the company, arts groups, and elected officials to deliver a design that exceeded expectations.
“What I’ve learned in architecture and design is that, when the opportunity seems complicated, that’s when your creativity has to rise to that opportunity,” firm principal David Adjaye told the crowd. “One gets opportunities to work in amazing places, but it’s actually much more rewarding to work in places people think design will not come to. [Here] we wanted to create something that would make a place.”
Outside Newark, Adjaye’s firm has a number of projects in process or recently completed. The architect just revealed updated designs for a new public library in Winter Park, Florida, and earlier this month, The Architect’s Newspaper (AN) spotted crews working on 130 William, Adjaye Associate’s first New York skyscraper. Although the firm is best known for its work on the National Museum of African American History and Culture, its latest commission, a Manhattan espionage museum, opened to the public in Feburary.