St. Louis Power Plant Redeveloped

When you are asked to envision a welcoming and inviting building, power plants may not be the first thing that comes to mind. When I say “power plants”, you might imagine a dirty, hot space filled with coal and thick, acrid smoke coming from the blackened smokestacks. Black smoke was a sign of a prosperous industry in the 19th century. But by the 20th century, power plants were seen as a threat to the environment.

This led to the end of all coal-fired power plants across America. One block east of City Hall, St. Louis had its power plant that provided steam for a few buildings. The power plant was soon a liability. It was a large open space with huge boilers and smokestacks that served no purpose. It was no longer fit for its intended purpose, so what is its future?

“The Power House spoke with us for its civic value and its potential,” says Tom Bergmann, architect and executive director of practice integration at CannonDesign. The space was taken over a decade ago. “We saw a building which had been important to our city and could be relevant again in completely different ways. The building inspired us and inspired us to design a solution that would inspire others.

This power plant-turned-design office works well because it is focused on the interaction between humans and the building’s structure. It is amazing to me how many modern and historic structures fail, even those that have received numerous design awards. Dorms At Berkeley: An Environmental Analysis was published in 1967. It featured students’ harsh reviews of residence halls. This was an indication of what I felt was a mid-century lack of concern for the human in architectural design. It was replaced by a renewed interest building’s response to its inhabitants and users.

David Polzin (the firm’s executive vice president of design), has shown renewed interest in the design for The Center for Advanced Medicine at Barnes Jewish Hospital. Two windows extend the height of the atrium, giving you expansive views of Forest Park and St. Louis from the west. It’s never fun to go to the doctor, but when you walk along with the balconies of CAM with the piano music echoing up into the atrium, it is at least a little more peaceful.

The CannonDesign renovations of the St. Louis Public Library’s Central Library, and creative atrium, brought the old library back into life, while also opening up the back side of the building that faces revitalized Washington Avenue. The addition complements the original Beaux-Arts architecture without obscuring the light that flows through the large windows in the old library stacks.

CannonDesign’s offices carved from an old power plant show the same sensitivity to light and positive effects it has on people at work. Although the office space requirements required two floors above ground, natural light is always available. The top floor is lit by light from the clerestory roof. It overlooks the large Roman-arched windows and the massive reinforced structures that supported the smokestacks. The cityscape can be seen through the large windows on the northeast and southwest sides of the building. The profile of each floor is different, which keeps visual interest separate from the exterior.

Polzin says that the workplace culture has changed over the past ten years. We are both engineers and architects here and have always used a collaborative model. They managed to squeeze everyone on a single floor in [Cannon’s] Chicago office – something like 50,000 square feet. There’s a cafe at the knuckle between the towers. He continues, “You end up with microcultures on each floor.” People have to be willing to travel to other floors to meet people. People do this, and the building is functional.”

Polzin also spoke about the importance of office management in the efficient use of space. It doesn’t matter how innovative or beautiful a building is, it can’t instill morale by itself. That comes from effective management of people and teams, empowerment, and nurturing of the company culture.

“One thing that we do here, is we move people around,” Polzin explains. “We have a small group of private offices on our west wall with four to five senior people. However, as people retire, those offices have become collaboration spaces. “I would probably have eliminated private offices in the original design.

CannonDesign’s creative and human-centered architecture has been a great example of this. Some of the most difficult blocks downtown are those south of the Gateway Mall or north of highway 40/Interstate 64 elevated lanes. The federal marshalls have a monopoly on what happens around the federal courthouse. Also, the interstate ramps are sweeping and can impede the development of more blocks. Although the Cupples Warehouses provide some relief, new construction is essential for this area to thrive. This area should be considered valuable real estate. When redevelopment occurs, I hope it is inspired by the human-centered solution CannonDesign brought into its new home.

The office’s amazing design will have a positive impact on other similar structures that are awaiting their turn at reuse. The old United Railways Power Station, located on Locust Street on the west side, is vacant and waiting for creative use. It has tall windows at its facade and clerestory roof lights that run the length of the building. The vision of a generous donor could also be used to revive the giant, but always-changing Laclede Power Station, which is owned by Great Rivers Greenway.

 

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