A Submerged Building Elevates The Landscape

Morris Newman on
May 1, 2004

Architects often talk about the need to design with an awareness of context, but few architects have taken the issue as literally as Richard Matteson. The Los Angeles-based architect has designed a building that, from certain angles, not only fits in with the surrounding landscape—in this case, a lush forest in a Los Angeles canyon—but from certain angles is well-nigh invisible.

The result is a design that is well-regarded by both its owner, the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, and its neighbors. And this modest building, still under development, may indicate an important shift in the relationship between architecture and landscape in a time of rising environmental awareness.

Like many public buildings in Southern California, the Stone Canyon water filtration plant is the product of a long negotiation—in this case, 12 years—between neighborhood groups and public officials. The story starts with federal clean water regulations from the 1980s that required water utilities either to enclose reservoirs or to build water filtration plants to ensure water purity.

The idea of covering a reservoir did not please the neighbors of Stone Canyon Dam, the scenic centerpiece of a 600-acre watershed just south of Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. After forming a group known as Coalition to Preserve Open Reservoirs, they formally requested that the Los Angeles City Council block construction. The council recognized the homeowners’ group, and instructed the Department of Water & Power to negotiate with it. In time, the public water company decided to take the reservoir "off line," and thus end the requirement. But the city was still in need of a smaller filtration plant, to purify the overflow from the dam after rainstorms and re-channel the surplus water into the city water system. The final outcome was a decision to build a smaller, 20,000-square-foot plant.

In 1987, the utility issued a request for proposals, eventually choosing a team made up of engineering firm Black & Veatch and Richard Matteson, a self-employed architect and veteran of several high-design firms. The biggest practical problem was fitting the building into the hillside. At 20,000 square feet, the proposed building envelope would be "the size of a basketball court with room for bleachers on both sides," according to the architect. A conventionally boxy building would require the destruction of several trees, which neighborhood residents opposed. After long study, Matteson decided to rearrange the two large water pumps inside the building, allowing the architect to reshape the building from a cubic volume into an irregular wedge that would fit more easily into the hillside, while reducing the overall size of the building by 25%.

The plan calls for essentially submerging nearly the entire building into the hillside, and covering much of the roof with 12 inches of sod. The footprint of the building is highly irregular, with big scoop-like shapes on its edges, resembling bites taken out of a giant cookie. These "bites" in fact, are places where the building makes room for existing trees on the site. The front elevation, visible only from a frontage road, is made up largely of planters. By law, the building must have two exits. The architect combines these with the air vent towers, which are covered with curving roofs that dampen the sound and redirect it away from hillside houses.

Matteson’s design gained ready acceptance from hard-line homeowners. In negotiations, two of the homeowners’ demands were that the building neither attract attention to itself not destroy more trees than necessary, according to Brian Studwell, a director of the Bel Air Association, one of the reservoir coalition’s constituent groups. After three proposed versions, the DWP and the activists agreed on a final design in 1999. Construction is due to start next year.

"Everybody who I’ve spoken says `I love it,’" said Studwell. The resulting process and design, he added, is "so unique in the annals of municipal government that DWP has written papers and sends speakers around the country" describing the project.

Given the political and esthetic success of the Stone Canyon water filtration plant, historians might someday cite this building as an example of the shifting relationship of the attitude of architects toward nature. Since the Renaissance, Western architects have often combined buildings and landscape into a single, harmonious composition, but the buildings have invariably been the central focus. Later, 20th Century architects, notably Frank Lloyd Wright, took this notion a step further by designing buildings that took advantage of dramatic landscapes as the backdrop for even more dramatic buildings; the most famous example is Falling Water in Pennsylvania—a magnificent building that arguably overpowers its equally magnificent site.

This humble Stone Canyon water filtration building (humble in a philosophical sense, not artistically) may not alter our collective slide into ecological crisis, but it does demonstrate an evolving set of values among designers. Matteson’s water plant in Bel Air is that hitherto rare building that gives primacy to the landscape. This gesture may be a sign of our rising awareness of the importance of landscape in the larger scheme of things, where ecology actually is more important than buildings.

However, maybe invisibility can be taken too far. "We are getting a magnificent building," said Martin Adams, DWP manager of planning and project management. He cited a comment from a neighboring homeowner. "We are getting a glorious building," she said, adding, "It may be unfortunate that it’s so difficult to see."