Initially, electricity was generated not far from where it was used to power industry and to light businesses and homes. In time, economies of scale, improvements in the capacity to transmit electrical energy over long distances at high voltages, and so the possibility of generating electricity close to energy sources (coal, hydropower), led to the separation of generation and consumption. That high voltage electricity needed to be received from elsewhere, converted to lower voltages, and distributed locally to users. Within two or three decades of the introduction of electrical lighting in cities, there was a network of electrical receiving and distribution stations throughout the city.
A complex and sophisticated and mostly-hidden technology allows us to treat electricity as a utility. But that technology also produced signs of its presence: in overhead wires and insulators, and in the buildings that contained the transformers that converted electricity to lower voltages. What is remarkable is that in Los Angeles, at least, the distribution stations were temples and monuments within otherwise unremarkable commercial and residential areas. Some were below ground or made to fit inconspicuously into the neighborhood. But for the most part they towered over adjacent structures, in their size and their significant form.
When I started to notice the Department of Water and Power’s electrical distribution stations, after having encountered more than a few in my previous project documenting storefront churches, I discovered that they were not much noted or noticed other than as ordinary unremarkable parts of the landscape. Eventually, I resolved to see them all. There are about 135 stations. I have photographed about fifty so far. Their dispersed locations provide an effective way of seeing more of Los Angeles more systematically. They are often the only monuments in their neighborhoods.
In my various projects, I try to defamiliarize what is ordinarily taken as “just there.” Now, I have yet to go inside one of the stations. My interest is how they mark the streetscape. If I were in the sixth or fifth grade, we might arrange a tour of a station. (There is even a Magic Schoolbus book about electrical generation.) In any case, often you can see transformers on the roof, or in the backyard of a station.
Martin H. Krieger
Professor of Planning
Price School of Public Policy
P.S. For more on electrification, see T. P. Hughes, Networks of Power, as well as biographies of Thomas Edison. Francis Ponge has written a paean to electricity, commissioned by the French electricity company, to encourage architects to make provision in their designs for electrical outlets, etc. And, of course, there is J. Cole’s The Magic Schoolbus and the Electric Field Trip.