Power Down

The day photographer Peter MacCallum asked me if I’d like to accompany him on a visit to the Lakeview Generating Station on the shores of Lake Ontario in Mississauga, I assumed he would be checking out the plant–now being dismantled–as a potential photographic subject. MacCallum is interested in the way things work, and especially in the way industrial processes work (see, for example, his recent book, Material World1, which offers a generous selection of his photographs documenting the concrete industry in Ontario). I assumed it would be the first visit for both of us. As it turned out, MacCallum had been coming to the plant for months. The day I went with him was his 20th trip–or perhaps pilgrimage would be a better word.

Being stripped every day of its functions and therefore of its industrial meaning, the vast, architecturally monolithic generating station now created disturbingly insistent romantic images and anthropomorphic associations in both of us: “wounded giant” is a phrase that keeps coming almost embarrassingly to mind. And the building’s slight canting in the landscape, plus the fact that its four towering smokestacks lend it an irresistibly Titanic-like look (what MacCallum refers to as the structure’s “unavoidable nautical qualities”) as we drive closer to it. “That discussion of ruined industrial buildings by Harbison has definitely been an influence on me,” MacCallum tells me. He’s referring to Robert Harbison’s The Built, The Unbuilt and the Unbuildable, in which the author notes that “there is no other architectural discrepancy so vast–one’s distaste for the working mill, one’s fascination with its husk. Something like the violence the factory formerly contained within it will soon be directed against it; the mammoth has changed from aggressor to victim and now earns our wistful attention.”2

Harbison makes frequent reference to the Piranesian qualities of an industrial building’s spaces–their prodigious scale, the porous, vertiginous heights and depths, the seemingly infinite extensions into distance–and so it was to prove at Lakeview, conditions that, in the end, kept MacCallum’s photographic attendance upon the building more theatrical, more operatic even, than wistful.

His photograph of the plant’s turbine hall is a case in point: as with all generating stations, the turbine hall is one of the few vast open spaces in what is otherwise a mostly verticalized, machine- and duct-congested megastructure. The turbine hall offers the greatest vista in the plant, a long perspectival romance of floor and ceiling, broken by the generators sunk halfway into the floor–generators as isolated events which, despite our shared desire to remain unsentimental and free of the easy lure of the picturesque, struck us both as a kind of landscape, like (in MacCallum’s words) “rock formations surrounded by a flat sandy plain.” This despite our knowing perfectly well that, as Harbison puts it, “Because they are so uncommunicative for long stretches, one attributes absolute integrity to industrial structures. When variety appears [as it does here in the form of a half-cylindrical generator] it will be purposeful, and will never exist for its own sake.”3 That is why we can afford to be fanciful about the plant’s metaphor-generating imagery: because we know it is irrelevant. As Marguerite Yourcenar states, “the interior has now become a kind of exterior, everywhere invaded by space like a ship by water.”4

Lakeview is not yet emptied of personnel; there is still a skeleton crew at work. MacCallum’s photograph of the control room for units 1 and 2 embodies the very essence of change–this is a hybrid control room, featuring both its former analogue and current computerized controls.

Being deep inside the plant is like being inside the whale. And standing anywhere close to one of the plant’s eight steam drums places you at the centre of a procedural feedback loop of water-steam-boiler-water-steam that is the pumping heart of the station’s power-engendering. The steam drums are so heavy that the plant essentially had to be built around them. I love the diagonally disposed speaker pinned to the girder running across the top of the photograph entitled Steam Drum of Boiler 2: its angling lends it that momentary, bounded authority that all brief diagonals possess–which serves to separate the ad hoc nature of the speaker’s occasional utterances from the eternal, everyday verticals and horizontals that surround it.

MacCallum’s photo of the forced air ducts in the boiler house (they feed the boilers with air) is a visual fantasia of up-and-down, an articulated, entrail-like verticality of crimps and curves cross-braced by strong horizontals and verticals–like the vulnerable organs in the body, held and protected by the ribcage. These are all steel objects of course, but each of them wears a soft, fine, even patina of dust–which is everywhere–and which lends a grey, pearlescent light to everything in the plant.

We both love the Rapper Room. Who wouldn’t? The Rapper Room is a sort of attic located at the top of one of Lakeview’s tall, rather house-like electrostatic precipitator chambers–rooms full of vertical steel electrodes charged to thousands of volts, so as to attract the ubiquitous fly-ash dust from the flue gases. The rappers lift and drop the electrodes in order to knock the dust off. This generates a sweet cacophony of wonderfully resonant pings, so that the whole place sounds as if it’s performing a piece of electronic music. Who knew a generating station could be so charming?

In the end, Peter MacCallum’s Lakeview photographs comprise a noble memorial to a gargantuan building that is going under. They celebrate the joy and the anguish of its captive space. The plant is not really architectural. It is morphological. But its anti-architectural beauty is immense, and, as Robert Harbison notes, “Who could think unintentionality could have such interesting fruits?”5

Gary Michael Dault paints, writes poetry, and contributes a regular visual arts column to The Globe & Mail. Peter MacCallum is a Toronto-based photographic artist who is currently studying various infrastructure elements such as water treatment plants in France and North America.

1 Peter MacCallum, Material World (Toronto: YYZ Books/ Museum London, 2004).

2 Robert Harbison, The Built, The Unbuilt and The Unbuildable (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991) p. 122.

3 Ibid., p.123.

4 Marguerite Yourcenar, The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984) p.97.

5 Harbison, op. cit., p. 121.