Generating Ideas: G.M. Shrum Generating Station at W.A.C. Bennett Dam

The hydroelectric plant at the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, designed by Andrew Gruft while working with Rhone & Iredale in the late 1960s, remains timeless half a century later.

The generating station welcomed visitors through concrete legs, while a circular elevator shaft allowed them to travel to view the machinery on the underground generating floor. Drawing by Glen Cividen

ARCHITECT Rhone & Iredale Architects

TEXT D’Arcy Jones

In 1965, Vancouver was a frontier town in ways that seem far-fetched today. That year, BC Hydro hired Rhone & Iredale Architects to work on one of the largest dams in the world—all because chairman Dr. Gordon Shrum liked a wooden sundeck they designed for his son. The task for the design fell to 27-year-old Andrew Gruft, who later became an architecture professor and photograph collector, before passing away last year.

From their office in an ex–bawdy house overlooking then-polluted False Creek, Rhone & Iredale had some 80 projects on the go. Thirty-seven-year-old Rand Iredale was more of a mentor and systems nerd than an artist, preoccupied with the science of building, Gantt charts, and adopting computer drafting before anyone even knew what it was. He and Bill Rhone led an office that took pride in delivering, despite youth and inexperience. The duo shared a dogged faith in delegating design, encouraging their project architects to run everything.

Prodded by the office’s notorious Friday pin-ups, Gruft detailed an iconic industrial newel cap that controls ten massive water-fueled generators that still produce about 30% of BC Hydro’s electrical output. Located on the Peace River, the dam and accompanying structures marked the end of an era where British Columbia’s smaller communities were often powered by diesel generators.

Unlike many tired modernist buildings of the late 1960s, the generating station’s design was boldly forward-looking. That clairvoyance was in tune with British Columbia’s twenty-year Bennett government, which was investing in an electrified future that still won’t peak until natural gas is lumped together with coal as one more outdated fuel.
The building draws on so many sources and bundles so many aspirations that it would have been slightly out-of-step with other modern architecture even on its opening day when 3,000 well-dressed guests went 600 feet underground to watch the ribbon get cut.

Mother Earth’s hydrological cycle is a perpetual motion machine. Before tapping a river’s flow, a dam needs enough vertical drop to create strong and constant water pressure for its turbines, so most are built on ancient waterfalls or rapids. As massive as the W.A.C. Bennett Dam is, its siting and function are fitted to a plateaued and channelized waterway that was always there. Nestled into the leeward side of the two-kilometre-long earth-filled dam, the generating station appears Palladian and toy-like. From the approach, only its pagoda-shaped top is visible. The decision to treat the BC-Hydro-blue roof as a fifth elevation is the first clue that the whole project was considered as a single cohesive entity, with repeated proportions and materials that defer to the grandeur of the dam and the Williston Lake reservoir.

Designed by Andrew Gruft when he was working at Rhone & Iredale, the G.M. Shrum Generating Station at the W.A.C. Bennett Dam drew from a variety of influences and endures as an architectural celebration of hydroelectric power. ABOVE A sketch by Gruft shows the generating station and its surrounding infrastructure. Photo by William Dekur, from personal files of Andrew Gruft

Industrial architecture is hardly ever public, so it rarely offers more than the facts. But BC Hydro wanted this project to be different, by simultaneously showing the public how electricity was produced, and by ennobling the technicians who ran the show. To visit this building is to experience optimism writ large. When new, there was much mention of how the generating station was supposed to look like a transformer. That comparison is fine, if incomplete, and twee. The design’s robust vocabulary references historical Asia, water’s movement, the sky, modernism in South America, and engineer-centric infrastructure. These precedents were massaged into an edited whole, to communicate a fully formed vision.

The Shrum Generating Station has four glassy fronts at ground level. The back face looks out over a humming high-voltage stockyard, where electricity is corralled before being wired south. Its two side faces have flowing arrays of scalloped skylights above subterranean workshop and storage areas, creating a nuanced quality of light that is almost too good for service spaces. The project’s biggest miss can be blamed on conventional operating hours: the public cannot approach the building at night, when the electric glow that comes up and out from the building is warmly evocative of the power being created underground.

The entry is through a stoically symmetrical front façade, between sturdy tapered concrete legs. From there, visitors are welcomed into a relaxed and lively little lobby, with possibly the wildest cross-section in all of Canadian architecture. These contrasting qualities reflected the times, however unconsciously. The building was created smack dab in the middle of an epoch when adults stopped wearing neckties and heels, and threw out hats that weren’t hard or billed. Its design hinted at the next decade’s showy brutalism, but kept it at bay by throwing in enough humility and scale to prevent visitors or staff from fixating on any one element at the expense of others.

Beyond the lobby, the building’s interior has been modified over time to accommodate the advent of computers and tighter post-9/11 security. Pride in human achievement has always been a meaningful cultural glue, so the visitor experience was carefully choreographed for maximum effect. I first saw the generating station in 1980, when the visitor’s centre was still on the highest level. A round hole in the floor let tour-goers observe engineers one level below, watching gauges and flicking switches at a semi-circular desk straight out of Star Trek. From that top floor, an elevator in a free-standing round concrete shaft took visitors underground to the generating floor, where they could see electrical production in action. Cheeky touches of vivid blue and red detailing at the lighting, handrails, and microphone stands are reminders that this warehouse-like volume was only partly conceived by the expressive architects, who had to negotiate with the dam’s main engineers to have at least a small voice.

A W.A.C. Bennett-sized dam will never happen again. Every viable site for substantial hydroelectric power generation in British Columbia will be used up once Fort St. John’s Site C dam opens in 2024. Hydroelectric power may go boutique, with waterwheels and small tributary turbines. Or hydroelectric generation might go underground, like at the Nant de Drance and Linthal pumped-storage facilities in Switzerland, where a large reservoir flows through turbines to a smaller one, using 20% of the generated power to pump the water back up to the top, re-using it over and over. This kind of closed-loop power production may be more practical once electricity rates increase, or after the more visible hydroelectric options are exhausted throughout spacious Canada.

Meanwhile, the Shrum Generating Station is, to this author’s eyes, the most soulful and humane of Rhone & Iredale’s major works. The building had eclectic influences because Gruft brought so many to the table. The resulting design is hard to categorize as it bobs between affecting your head or your gut. Fifty-four years later, this project on the Peace River continues to dignify the invisible, expressing the circumstances of its creation while timelessly doing its own thing.

D’Arcy Jones is the director of Vancouver-based firm D’Arcy Jones Architects.