BY MIMI ZEIGER
You’ve likely heard of William Mulholland. There’s a ridgetop road in the Santa Monica Mountains, Mulholland Drive, named after him that offers breathtaking views of the Los Angeles basin and was the namesake of a David Lynch movie. Tall tales and mythologies swirl around Mulholland, the civil engineer who founded the Los Angeles Aqueduct and brought water to the desert. The aqueduct, which opened on November 5, 1913, and recently celebrated its centennial, would eventually become the water half of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and Mulholland’s life would transform into legend. But if the story of L.A. water is well known, what of the power supply, the last letter in LADWP? That’s the question posed by the exhibition LADWP Power, on view at the Los Angeles headquarters of the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) through February 2014.
The one-room show, presented on three touch screens and two walls of the center, examines the overlooked electrical infrastructure that seamlessly, almost invisibly, illuminates and drives Los Angeles. “The DWP is iconic and welded to the city’s culture,” says Matthew Coolidge, who founded CLUI in 1994 and is its director. “Mythologized through various media, such as the film Chinatown, it’s part of the noir history of L.A.”
The opening of the aqueduct brought abundant megawatts of hydroelectric power to L.A., but municipal electricity predates the water system, dating back to 1902. Mulholland’s counterpart in power was an electrical engineer, Ezra Scattergood, who diligently oversaw the installation of hydroelectric plants along the aqueduct and, as the chief electrical engineer of the Bureau of Power and Light, pushed for the building of the Hoover Dam. When the Bureau of Power and Light consolidated with the Bureau of Water Works and Supply to form the Department of Water and Power in 1937, Scattergood’s contributions were neatly filed away.
Curators Coolidge and Ben Loescher aren’t out to resuscitate Scattergood’s reputation. Their interest lies with the LADWP, the country’s largest municipal utility, which serves a third of the L.A. region’s population and accounts for both more resources and more revenue than water. “Though water is certainly essential to the city,” the curators write, “the power of DWP comes from power.”
Photographs, maps, and explanatory texts document each component of the LADWP’s electrical system with an almost banal simplicity. The exhibition indexes the sources: plants that run on coal, gas, nuclear, and hydroelectric power. Geographically, the list covers sites on the Southern California coast to the Owens Valley, dams on the Columbia River, and the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, all accessed through the touch screen interface. Each of the system’s 23 stations for receiving, converting, and switching power are rendered through deadpan exposition: a street view, an aerial photograph, and an address.
The Center for Land Use Interpretation’s mission is contingent on that last word: interpretation. Coolidge and his team do the research and present artifacts for viewers to make their own conclusions. “Although it’s the largest municipal utility, it only has so many sites,” Coolidge explains. “Because of that, we were able to look at it exhaustively, instead of representationally. We made a giant list of facilities and then arranged site visits to meet with people at the locations and get a sense of how each site operates. One of the effects of the exhibition is that the public is to be able to get their mind around something amorphous and disconnected. By casting a net we can create a portrait of the DWP that explains its interconnectedness and, ultimately, its finiteness.”
There are less than 200 electrical distribution stations in L.A.’s utility network, a number that is surprisingly modest for a region that seems vast in its expanse and unrelenting energy consumption. Each distribution station houses a step-down transformer that converts the current coming in from 35,400 volts to 4,800 volts. It’s then stepped down to 240 volts by pole-top transformers for distribution to the community. CLUI’s images, besides revealing the function of distributing stations, honor their architectural variety. There are art deco temples to power, low-slung mid-century structures executed in a visual language caught between residential and industrial, and stealth boxes lurking behind overgrown fig trees.
LADWP Power at first appears to dwell in the land of documentation, but there is a larger goal. By revealing infrastructure close to home, the show intends to provoke a different relationship between the public and a public utility. For example, as I swiped through the DWP sites in the gallery, I immediately found my neighborhood’s distributing station in Los Feliz: No. 54, a building more blankly overlooked than mysterious. To my surprise, an aerial photo revealed that the beige stucco facade was not much of a building at all, but a wall surrounding a yard filled with disconnect switches, voltage regulators, and transformers.
“The more subtle or more invisible things are, the more exciting they are,” Coolidge says. “It struck me early on in school that people have a limited awareness of what is around them. How can we make a better connection to where we live by understanding the environment in which we live?” Unpacking the invisible, everyday built environment is critical to the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s mission, and its interpretations go beyond the gallery. The curators look at the real world and ask questions: What is that? What does it do? Who owns it?
In February, CLUI will host a bus tour of DWP sites around Southern California that are usually off-limits to visitors. For Coolidge, direct contact with these places anchors them in time and place, providing access to the architecture but also to the local experts and technicians who run the power plants and substations. He’s also hoping that the LADWP Power tour will include a visit to the Sylmar Converter Station just outside of L.A. This is where the DC power lines (500 kV) from the northwest coast are converted in order to sync up with Los Angeles’s AC power grid. It’s one of the few spots in the United States where this convergence happens. “The inside of Sylmar’s valve hall looks like giant lungs of some extraterrestrial organism,” he says. “Its forms are wondrous, mystical, and exciting. It’s a very science fiction kind of place, but it is also very real, very practical utilitarian science.”
LADWP Power is on display until February 16, 2014, at the Center for Land Use Interpretation, 9331 Venice Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232. (310) 839-5722.Mimi Zeiger is a Los Angeles–based journalist and critic, covering architecture, art, urbanism, and design.
This story has been updated to reflect several corrections.