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Housing the Machine: Co-generation Plants by Hillier

The idea of turning industrial facilities into more aesthetic, sculpted forms is gaining acceptance and is likely to become more prevalent in the future.

by Elyse Kantrowitz
August 4, 2003

An enclosure for industrial machines doesn’t have to be unattractive. A progressive client and a prominent site can translate into an interesting, imaginative structure.


A case in point is Rockefeller University on Manhattan’s East Side. The administration wanted an attractive enclosure for its new chiller plant. Completed earlier this year, the plant is positioned in a rather high profile location – it is surrounded on three sides by university buildings, including the main dining hall and a well-used pedestrian footbridge, and its eastern façade hugs a curve on the heavily trafficked FDR Drive at 63rd Street.


The Hillier New York design team, led by principal David Finci, AIA, chose to turn the three large chillers and the interconnecting pipe work into a visual spectacle. Filled with brightly colored sculptured forms, the elegant new glass building looks like it could be the home of the art collection for the prestigious research university. It is a gallery, however not for artwork but for three chillers – large machines that help maintain comfortable air temperatures throughout the campus.


The philosophy behind the design? What is visually understandable is pleasing. The clear illumination of the small (only 5,500 square feet) building’s contents is part of the designers’ deliberate effort to put its colorful and surprisingly attractive shapes on display. The 25-foot-high enclosure includes two translucent vaults that provide the extra headroom required for the large chillers. Bordered by glass curtain walls, the façade is frosted on the side facing FDR Drive, and transparent to the rest of the campus. Always lit, the building serves as a beacon to those traveling on the FDR Drive, the Queensborough (59th Street) Bridge, and the Roosevelt Island trolley.


Dining hall patrons and footbridge pedestrians, ranging from research assistants to Nobel Prize winners, now have an intriguing view. Some find delight in the abstract shapes, vibrantly painted in all the colors of the spectrum in accordance with the building code. Others see the industrial plant and appreciate the rational functionalism of the machinery.


A Precursor


A similar project was first undertaken at JFK Airport in New York in 1996. Located diagonally across from Eero Saarinen’s famed TWA terminal, the 45,000-square-foot co-generation plant (which provides all the electricity for the airport) can be seen by the millions of travelers who pass through this busy airport each year. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey realized it had to fit in with its surroundings, and stipulated that the plant’s design had to be approved by the Authority’s architectural board. The overall design strategy was to exhibit the machines rather than obscure them, by using a vocabulary of bold sculptural forms that resonate with the geometries of the surrounding terminals.


The smaller machines, such as chillers, are contained within a series of 30-foot-high glass-fronted showcases. The roofs of these housings take up long sweeping curves, reminiscent of the elegance of an aircraft’s wing. The glass façade at the leading edge is set at an angle, referencing the sloped windows of the airport’s control tower. A space frame painted a vibrant red surrounds the large steam generators, mastering the visual complexity of the machinery with a bright, rhythmic grid. The shape of the grid becomes the primary experience – an intelligible form that gives order to the mechanistic interior.


Still to Come


Hillier has taken much the same approach in planning two California power plants for Calpine, the large power company headquartered in San Jose. The 450-megawatt Metcalf Energy Center power plant just outside San Jose is scheduled for completion in 2004. Like most power plants, this project stirred controversy within the community. Since the plant is located in San Jose’s last undeveloped valley, many area residents opposed it. Yet, because of California’s energy crisis, it was badly needed. Providing a design for a facility many people didn’t want to see but needed to have, was an exercise in creativity.


It took three years and many design incarnations until the final design was approved. A “screen” of green piping follows the contours of the machinery and creates a metaphorical allusion to the surrounding rolling hills. To allow the plant’s function to be seen and appreciated, the designers chose vertical, three-dimensional steel trusses that are 100 feet high and able to support steel tubes three feet in diameter. Contained within the plane of the large tubes are simple steel channels spanning the trusses, spaced to allow an almost full view of the plant behind the primary foreground. Steel shaped into flowing plastic forms on a monumental scale provide an overlaid visual simplicity to the confusing intricacy of the generators.


San Jose Mercury News architectural critic Alan Hess noted that the shapes “sensitively silhouette the soft natural curves of the Northern California hills, but with a hint of the teardrop streamlining associated with modern technology since the 1930s.”


Another Calpine-owned project, the Russell City Energy Center in Hayward, California, is on the boards. Sited in an industrial zone next to an extensive wetland bird sanctuary on the east bank of San Francisco Bay at the end of the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, the 450-megawatt co-generation plant will be visible from San Francisco itself. Such a prominent site calls for a large signature gesture, which will be provided with shaped trusses supporting a distinctive curved boundary frame. Infill panels of suspended stainless steel mesh will partially screen the plant equipment. The bold sculptural profile, likened to a giant cresting wave, will create an unmistakable landmark and symbolic gateway to the city of Hayward.


Project Teams

Rockefeller University Chiller Plant, New York City

David Finci, AIA

Paul Stocks, RIBA

Matthew Salerno, AIA

Sedge Hahm


JFK Airport Co-Generation Plant, Jamaica, NY

David Finci, AIA

Dale Laurin, AIA

Matthew Salerno, AIA


Calpine, San Jose and Hayward, CA

David Finci, AIA

Paul Stocks, RIBA


Hillier provides services in architecture, interior architecture, strategic facilities planning, historic preservation, urban design, graphic design, and land planning. Through a network of offices in Princeton and Newark, NJ, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, DC, and Dallas, the firm serves clients globally. Recent landmark projects include the GlaxoSmithKline world headquarters in London, the Sprint world headquarters in Overland Park, KS, Lincoln Cottage in Washington, DC, Duke University Center for Human Genetics in Durham, NC, the City of Newark Public Library, and a number of international schools for gifted children.


Elyse Kantrowitz is the Research Analyst at The Hillier Group in Princeton, New Jersey. 
















(click on pictures to enlarge)

(Sedge Hahm/Hillier)
Rockefeller University chiller plant is lit at night, and the vaults and the sidewalls glow.

(Sedge Hahm/Hillier)
The frosted façade hugs the curve of the FDR Drive.

Site Plan: Rockefeller University chiller plant

(Jeff Goldberg/ Esto)
JFK Airport co-generation plant: The bold sculptural form that resonates with the geometries of the surrounding terminals.

(Jeff Goldberg/ Esto)
JFK Airport co-generation plant: A space frame painted a vibrant red creates a rhythmic grid surrounding the large steam generators.

JFK Airport co-generation plant: Floorplan

Metcalf Energy Center: Curved green piping follows the contours of the machinery and echoes the rolling hills in the background.

Russell City Energy Center: The bold sculptural profile, likened to a giant cresting wave, will support infill panels of suspended stainless steel mesh that will partially screen the plant equipment.

Russell City Energy Center: Floorplan

© 2003