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De-Generation: Decades of decline in Ontario’s electric power architecture

More than a century ago, Nikola Tesla fought with Thomas Edison about whose hydro-electric power technology would be adopted—Tesla’s alternating current (AC) or Edison’s direct current (DC). Tesla eventually prevailed, but Edison undermined him for several years by instilling public fear about electricity’s safety. At Niagara Falls, high architectural style for the emerging industry aimed to assuage that fear. It was the first in a fascinating—and largely unexamined—lineage of monumental buildings for power generation in Ontario.

Toronto Power Generating Station at Niagara

The neoclassical Toronto Power Generating Station at Niagara (1906) was one of the area’s earliest electrical utility buildings, and the first Canadian-owned facility of its kind. Sited just above Niagara Falls, it made a bold stylistic statement, and appeared as solid as a bank. Fluted columns, parapets, and ornate friezes were among the classical staples adopted by a modern industry whose foundations sprang from radical scientific invention. In effect, major financiers in an experimental venture downplayed the reality of investor risk and fledgling technology with a visual air of established permanence.

As the risks diminished over time, so did the stylistic flourishes. Ongoing technological development over the following decades improved the industry’s reliability to the point where it could relax about risk and image, and eventually shroud its generators in plain, cheap boxes. In the earliest structures, ground-level windows allowed the public to peer at the polished machinery that powered the world’s second industrial revolution. Today’s blank walls only offer efficient cladding. New builds slid into an increasingly casual appearance until Ontario’s waterfront, from the St. Lawrence to Lake Erie and beyond, was dotted with giant, bleak sheet metal sheds. In other words, serious image control gave way to utilitarian fashion.

This shift from stylish formality to barren utility is not a simple case of form following function. This is clear since large-scale hydro-electric generators have served an unchanging function for a century, while their public facing appearance relentlessly changed.

Ontario Hydro’s first truly large-scale generating station, the 1922 Sir Adam Beck 1 Generating Station at Niagara, is rendered in raw concrete. far from being Brutalist, it derives its design theme entirely from its period, its outward appearance more suggestive of the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel (albeit without ostentatious adornments) rather than industrial function.

Sir Adam Beck 1 Generating Station

With its arched leaded glass windows and linear vertical orientation resembling a colonnade, this was a pioneering power plant, but with design cues seemingly taken from urban hotels. Even so, the Beck Station marks the electrical industry’s first stylistic shift toward simplicity, apparent when placed in contrast to its elaborate 1906 predecessor.

Another design shift appears in the adjacent Sir Adam Beck 2 station, constructed three decades later.

Sir Adam Beck 2 Generating Station

Adam Beck 2 came online in 1954, retaining its neighbour’s overarching theme of a linear colonnade— but with markedly less detailing in its powerhouse. The same shift played out in other provinces over the following decade. Quebec’s 1959 Daniel-Johnson Dam resembles a modernistic Roman aqueduct. Its arch and buttress configuration delivers one of the industry’s last large-scale visual jolts before succumbing to a new era of featureless bland infrastructure, such as at Labrador’s Churchill Falls and B.C.’s Bennet Dam.

The landmark smokestack that still remains at Toronto’s magnificent Hearn Generating Station stands 705 feet tall. The 1951 station’s style is sometimes identified as Art Moderne owing to its sleek western elevation—to the extent that a hulking mass the size of two Tate Modern museums, sitting on a twelve-foot-thick concrete slab can be described as sleek. This is the last of the architectural greats of the electrical age. Its sunset silhouette in clean lines and its reflection in the shipping channel off Commissioners Street are well worth a visit.

Richard L. Hearn Generating Station

Soon after the Hearn spewed its final soot-laden exhaust cloud in 1983, local skirmishes erupted over various repurposing proposals. Ontario’s coal-fired Grand Dame of industrial scale power was converted to gas—but ultimately shuttered. It has since hosted a few art galas and cinematic shoots, but has largely faded from the public mind.

A new neighbour would seal the Hearn’s fate as a stagnant relic. The 2008 Portlands Energy Centre— part of a rising trend to build a more advanced breed of natural gas power plant—went up right next door, with zoning rules that virtually eliminated the chance of any new civic activity being initiated in the area.

The Portlands generator pushed Toronto’s industrial architecture into its final decline, trading a regional design classic for an anonymous, insipid look. The Hearn’s classic red brick cladding drew on local materials; the Portlands’ sheet metal finish might have been sourced from anywhere. The new style could charitably be called Irredeemable Utilitarian.

The only possible saving grace for the Portlands station lies in the ship turning basin, which in the right light might be thought to mimic the reflecting pool at the Taj Mahal.

Portlands Energy Centre

The turning basin originally allowed for the passage of coal ships and the supply of cooling water that fed the magnificent Hearn, so the Portlands Centre plays a sort of parasitic role—borrowing a picturesque landscape feature from the cadaver next door.

Portlands Energy Centre

The best viewing happens during the partial melt that follows January’s deep freeze. It’s most spectacular at night, when the turning basin catches the reflections of the white ground-level perimeter lights and the red exhaust-stack beacons. The bland utility shed morphs into an industrial-scale wedding cake.

Another prime viewing opportunity comes courtesy of winter’s bite. The Portlands Station is a peak-period generator, only burning gas when Southern Ontario’s coldest days drive up the demand for electrical power above the steady base load provided by the province’s nuclear fleet. January days come with the clearest skies, and the sun casts sharp shadows on the snow-covered turning basin, while dazzling white exhaust plumes stream away in the wind. this sliver of aesthetic redemption—present only on the coldest days—will mostly be a sight unseen.

In 1971—while the Hearn was grinding out power from ancient fossil-based coal—the nuclear age came online at Pickering. Forty kilometres away along the same Lake Ontario shore, the Pickering Generating Station showed some outward sign of style, perhaps unintentional. Its eight reactor cores sit nestled in a neat row of monolithic domes resembling flattened hyperbolic cupolas, fronted by the gargantuan cylindrical Vacuum Building.

Pickering Generating Station

Pickering was to the first and last nuclear power plant commissioned in Ontario with something to look at. Within five years, two newer plants at Darlington and Bruce were undertaken with garden-shed-like enclosures, bringing an end to identifiable industrial architecture. The end of ancient fossil fuel more or less coincided with the death of design.

The latest power generators may again make design history. But ironically, most of them won’t have much of a design to speak of. Wind and solar facilities tend to be landscape installations instead of being architectural per se. Of course, there are building-integrated photovoltaic installations, but those aren’t necessarily architectural. They are still panels on buildings. The mirrored glass exterior of many of Toronto’s office towers could conceivably be switched to solar arrays, and few onlookers would be wise to it. Renewables may never have a real shot at architectural significance.

Some newer power ventures—including ones that have yet to be invented—may inject a resurgent sense of style, to provide material reassurance as the technological and financial risks associated with power generation return. It may turn out that the same big money that finances new technologies tomorrow will try, like their predecessors a century ago, to comfort the public with aesthetic familiarity—at least at first.


Joe Atikian is a Toronto author and photographer creating works that involve industry, nature, and art. His latest book is Industrial Shift : The Structure of the New World Economy, and his photographs are available at joeatikian.com

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