The Art of Infrastructure

Landscape architects are visualizing the future of renewable energy.

By Timothy A. Schuler 

In Glasgow, a winning proposal for a utility-scale renewable energy facility is being prototyped this year. It uses turbine technology developed by the Spanish company Vortex Bladeless. Image courtesy of Dalziel + Scullion, Qmulus Ltd., Yeadon Space Agency, and ZM Architecture.

I first began to see the signs outside Sioux City, Iowa, along Interstate 29. They were white with big black letters: “Have Pride in Our Community.” The words were arranged around a central graphic of a wind turbine circumscribed by a red circle, a diagonal line through the middle. Just beyond the signs, and the farmhouses whose owners had put them up, were the real thing. Dozens of them. Giant, spinning turbines as far as the eye could see. Their presence gave the homes a sense of existing in occupied territory.

Wind turbines—and opposition to them—are an increasingly common reality, not just in Iowa but throughout the United States. According to Department of Energy statistics, wind energy generation quadrupled from 2001 to 2006 and did so again by 2011. By 2015, the United States was producing 190 million megawatt hours of energy by harnessing the wind, compared to just 5.5 million megawatt hours in 2000. Most of this capacity has been constructed in the heart of the country, where wind is plentiful. Iowa, with an installed capacity of 6,917 megawatts, is the national leader when it comes to in-state wind energy generation. Wind accounts for 36 percent of the state’s energy needs.

Assuming that the United States continues to devote land and other resources to large-scale wind and solar power (and experts believe it will, despite the election of Donald Trump, owing to market pressures), its infrastructure will become all the more visible, even ubiquitous, in certain regions. This has serious implications for the landscape, says Dean Apostol, a senior landscape architect and restoration ecologist at MIG, a planning and design consultancy. “If [wind energy] gets developed to the level that we’re anticipating, you will drive from Maine to Oregon 20, 30 years from now, and you will not be out of sight of a wind turbine for that entire drive,” he says. “What we’re talking about is reshaping the rural landscape, including the nearshore environment, of the entire continent.”

Apostol is the coauthor—with James Palmer, FASLA; Martin Pasqualetti; Richard Smardon; and Robert Sullivan—of a new book titled The Renewable Energy Landscape: Preserving Scenic Values in our Sustainable Future, a dense, research-based attempt to reckon with that very future. Commercial wind farms can occupy as many as 50,000 acres and are visible from well beyond their property line. This new energy infrastructure can be plopped onto the landscape, erected with little thought to its visual impact, Apostol says, or it can be skillfully integrated with the surrounding topography and arranged in eye-pleasing patterns, the turbines synchronized in balletic precision. He and his coauthors have created a guide to achieving the latter for both wind and solar facilities, outlining principles for producing comprehensive visual impact assessments and realistic renderings.

A U.S. wind power map shows energy generation potential at a height of 150 feet. Blue areas are considered “superb.” Image courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Compared to more traditional projects—a corporate campus or a public park—renewable energy facilities are a relatively new typology for landscape architects, rife with unique challenges. “It’s not like anything else we’ve encountered,” Apostol says. “A single wind turbine is a 50-story building with a spinning blade the size of a Boeing 747.” Turbines vary in size but generally have gotten taller over time, reaching heights in excess of 500 feet, measured to the tip of the blade. Trying to accurately represent the impact of such an object—not to mention 80 square miles of them—is tricky. How do you visually communicate the sensation of a turbine’s blinking lights or the continuous rotation of its blades? How do you simulate the temporal aspects of driving amid fields of these objects for half an hour or more? Videos, animations, and other sorts of simulations can be effective but are expensive, Apostol says. And yet, given that aesthetics are at the center of much of the opposition to renewable energy development, visualizations can play a key role in a project’s fate.

The authors make little secret of their support for renewable energy development, but they also take a realistic, perhaps even pessimistic, view of current technologies. They are focusing on how to mitigate the inevitable harm these mechanical intrusions cause to the landscape. If this camp represents the pragmatic end of the spectrum—a realist’s guide to siting renewable energy—at the other end are those landscape architects who take issue with the notion that our infrastructure must be visually unappealing. Anne Godfrey, a senior instructor of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon, says landscape architects should “question the basis of some of those [assumptions] and say, ‘Hey, we want this to be different. We don’t want wind turbines covering the United States. What do we do about it?’”

For the past six years, Godfrey has had her students participate in the biennial competition held by the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI). This year, two of her graduate landscape architecture students, Keegan Oneal, Student Affiliate ASLA, and Colin Poranski, took second place. LAGI was founded by Robert Ferry and Elizabeth Monoian in 2008 to inspire new forms for alternative energy generation. Competition sites have included Copenhagen, Denmark; New York City; and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. This year, the competition site was 2,000 feet off the shore of Santa Monica, California. It was the first time LAGI had selected an offshore site, and it raised the bar for aesthetic considerations considerably. Despite the absence of any literal backyards, there is little more fraught territory than nearshore environments, especially in affluent areas like Santa Monica. The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans have long served as unique magnets for contemplation and artistic interpretation within American culture, and coastal areas are, statistically speaking, scarce: While the United States has 3.8 million square miles of land, it has just 95,471 miles of shoreline.

The rib-like structures generate wind, wave, and solar energy, while also providing marine habitat. Image courtesy of Keegan Oneal, Sean Link, Caitlin Vanhauer, and Colin Poranski (University of Oregon).

Oneal’s and Poranski’s proposal, Cetacea (created with architecture undergrads Sean Link and Caitlin Vanhauer), demonstrates the possibilities of site-specific renewable energy infrastructure. Inspired by the blue whale, a series of humped, rib-like arches protrude from the water in distinct groupings, like a pod of whales swimming along the shore. Their forms are open, diaphanous. “We wanted there always to be an idea of the presence of the horizon line, a sense of being on the water,” Oneal says. Almost 100 feet in height at their tallest, the arch structures use wave energy converters, integrated photovoltaic panels, and Windbelts—which convert the motion of aeroelastic flutter into electricity—to annually generate 4,300 megawatt hours of clean power. That power, the students decided, would go to the Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling Facility (SMURRF), which treats 500,000 gallons of stormwater a day, creating a highly visible connection between water and energy.

The students also designed rubble-like concrete footings that would provide habitat for sea creatures, including predators of the purple urchin, which is decimating the area’s kelp forests. “If an installation is going to have a large foundation, that foundation had better be playing a role in the ecology of the site that it’s being imposed on,” Oneal says.

Cetacea’s emphasis on ecology and ethnography—the material palette draws on the local sailing culture—was a big part of why the jury liked it, Godfrey says. “Their entry showed that they really understood what was happening on the ground in Santa Monica, and the legacy of the planning that had already occurred around water,” she says.

It’s unlikely that Cetacea will ever be built. But site-specific energy infrastructure may not be too far in the future. In 2015, Ferry and Monoian were hired by the city of Glasgow, Scotland, to host an invited design competition on a brownfield site north of the city center. They tapped past LAGI winners to work with local firms to design a utility-scale energy facility that would double as public art. Wind Forest, the winning proposal by Dalziel + Scullion, Qmulus Ltd., Yeadon Space Agency, and ZM Architecture, uses bladeless wind turbines to create a series of inhabitable groves, turning the hillside into something between a public park and a power plant. The project is being prototyped on site next year.

As countries set ever more aggressive renewable energy targets, there may be limitations to how creative designers can get. Larger, more efficient facilities will be desired. For Apostol, that’s the issue. “An individual wind turbine is a beautiful thing,” he says. “I’m not sure you can improve on it, aesthetically.” The problem is scale. “I could design something that’s really beautiful, and if I put one of them in a public park or a plaza, people go, ‘Oh, that’s really gorgeous.’ Now, let’s put a thousand of them there. People would say, ‘Wait a minute.’”

Ferry admits that not every wind farm will be a work of art. But “in certain conditions,” he says, “it’s an opportunity to allow for the more accelerated adoption of these technologies because people will find them sexy; they’ll want them. And they [will] become landmarks, monuments to this important time in human history.”

There is also the chance that opposition to wind farms based on aesthetic grounds will eventually fade away. In her forthcoming book, Aesthetics of the Familiar: Everyday Life and World-Making, Yuriko Saito, a professor of philosophy at Rhode Island School of Design, explores the opposition to wind farms from an aesthetic perspective. She presents the Eiffel Tower and Golden Gate Bridge as examples of beloved landmarks that were once reviled. “Nobody would say these are eyesores today,” she says. Similarly, the writer Eula Biss has chronicled the backlash against telephone poles—more akin to wind turbines, perhaps—when they were first erected in the late 1800s. Now, they are a part of the landscape.

Saito’s explorations are based on a conclusion also reached by Apostol and his coauthors: that aesthetics play an enormous role in influencing our decisions about things like renewable energy. “Aesthetics can be a great ally for creating a better world,” she says, “but it can also be a powerful enemy. If aesthetics is part of the problem, perhaps we can redirect aesthetics so that it can be part of the solution.”

What is undeniable is that energy infrastructure is becoming more diffuse, making its way into towns and neighborhoods. Godfrey sees opportunities for landscape architects to lead the way in designing what that will look like. It doesn’t have to be a monument, she says. It can be as simple as using off-the-shelf technologies in unorthodox ways, or working with manufacturers to develop new but marketable products. “Landscape architecture should act like any other field that does a high level of innovation,” she says. “We should be the ones inventing.” And to really invent something new, designers should be thinking not about tomorrow but about 25 or 50 years from now, she says. “If we target for those time scales, we can be way more innovative.”

But tomorrow is important too, especially for communities in places like Iowa that have borne the aesthetic brunt of America’s transition to renewable energy. Those white signs outside Sioux City encouraged residents to have pride in their community by fighting the wind farms. Oneal is hopeful that the sort of thinking that produced Cetacea and the other LAGI entries can encourage more sensitive solutions. “Renewable energy infrastructure can do more than produce power,” he says. “It can become part of the story of a place and be something that communities can be proud of.”

Timothy A. Schuler writes about landscape architecture, ecology, and urban design. He lives in Honolulu.

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