EUROPE Squares with tall chimneys: The designs of power plants rarely warm the soul. But recently, architects, energy companies and cities have started to break conventions.

Combined heat and power (CHP) plants are big, which makes them difficult to conceal. They are often located in an industrial area on the outskirts of the city. But cities grow, and what was once on the edge of a city often later becomes surrounded by buildings. “In which case, it’s no use having a building that makes people look the other way,” says Helena Glantz, an architect from the architect firm Urban Design. Together with Danish company Gottlieb Paludan Architects, Urban Design has designed a new, biomass-fuelled CHP plant in Stockholm. The plant is located on former industrial land, which has transformed into a densely populated urban district. In close proximity to the new plant, there is an old power station and gasometers made of brick and stone from the late nineteenth century, which have now been converted into cultural facilities and offices. “Therefore, the CHP plant must be aesthetically appealing, both from a distance and at street level, where people are milling around,” says Glantz.

In the 1950s, industrial buildings were gradually stripped of any architectural finesse, a trend which culminated in the 1970s, when there was virtually no embellishment at all. Function took priority over form. “First, all the equipment that was needed for the CHP plant was purchased. Then the plant was built, often on a tarmacked area enclosed by a barbed wire fence. After that, it was covered with sheet metal. Nobody seemed to care that it looked ugly and soulless,” Glantz says.

Now things are going the other way. Both cities and energy companies have started to realise that these big buildings have a great deal of potential over and above their original function. If they are designed well, they can be eye-catching landmarks or even a destination in their own right, which can enhance the image of both the city and the energy company concerned.

A good example of this is the Spittelau waste incineration plant in Vienna, Austria. In the early 1990s, following a fire, a previously functional building was transformed into a mixture of art, technology and ecology. With its multicoloured façade and chimney with a golden sphere, the plant attracts thousands of tourists every year, as well as falcons that breed in artificial nests in the chimney.

In Uppsala, Vattenfall plans to build a new, biomass-fuelled combined heat and power plant to replace an older, partly fossil-fuelled power plant. A jury chose the design because of its “coherent building concept that is in harmony with Uppsala’s urban silhouette”. (Photo: Liljewall)
In downtown Roombeek, Enschede, the combined heat and power plant building is the largest Delft-blue work of art in the Netherlands. Artist Hugo Kaagman ­illustrated the tiles not with traditional motifs like ships and windmills but with designs inspired by electricity production and icons from Enschede’s ­history. (Photo: Walter Sietinga)

A further example can be found in Copenhagen, Denmark, where a new waste incineration plant will be active in three years’ time. The plant will be one of the biggest in Europe and will incorporate a 90-metre high ski slope for year-round use. It is located just a few kilometres from the heart of the city. ”Because we’re building on such a large scale, it makes perfect sense to use the height for something good,” says Ulla Röttger, CEO of the future owner, energy company Amager Ressource Cen­ter (ARC).

The roof of the building will be covered in special plastic mats designed for skiing on. A lift will transport skiers to the top where they can enjoy the view over Copenhagen, have a snack in the roof-top cafe or shop in the shopping arcade also to be found there. Additionally, the plan is to release the plant’s filtered flue gases in the form of smoke rings and to light them up with spotlights at night. “This is more than just a building. It’s a perfect example of how you can use architecture to make a building multifunctional,” says project architect Bjarke Ingels.

The Copenhagen project is expected to cost just over 430 million euros, but this “added extra” represents just a fraction of the total cost of the project. And, in the best-case scenario, it will pay for itself. “The difference in cost between attractive and ugly is fairly small. If it costs 5.5 million euros to do something extra, this should be seen in the context of the, say, 215 to 325 million euros it costs to build a standard combined heat and power plant in the first place,” explains Glantz. “If the plant is attractive enough to be situated in a central location, it will mean shorter supply lines and consequently lower costs. It’s a definite win-win-situation, both aesthetically and financially.”

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