Research Studio with Jason Payne

M.Arch.I, Third Year


The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP, or simply DWP) oversees the largest municipal infrastructure in the United States. The scale of this network of streams and rivers, lakes and reservoirs, dams, aqueducts, culverts, pipes, stations, substations, and power lines is vast, spanning several western states. Physical evidence of this infrastructure is everywhere but goes unnoticed: everywhere yet nowhere at once. Usually its invisibility occurs secondarily, the inevitable side effect of ubiquity. In certain cases, however, the suppression of the system’s physical presence is purposeful, a conscious decision by its architects and engineers to hide certain objects in plain sight. This is especially true of the substations, buildings that fade into the urban background through either textbook contextualism or, more interestingly, through dead iconography. This studio begins with an exploration of these substations for their potential to inform a new language for form that occurs at the intersection of infrastructure and architecture.

The development of this language occurs in the design of new substations and of a larger building, the LADWP Headquarters complex in downtown Los Angeles. In terms of iconography and expression the existing headquarters building runs counter to the more subtle, reclusive approach taken for so much of the rest of the system. Instead the building celebrates its authority over water, its power. Indeed the word power may be understood in two ways here: the power created and distributed by DWP, as well as the power DWP has in the larger context of Los Angeles. For as we know, LA is located in a very arid semi-desert and cannot exist without water from afar. For this reason, DWP may very well be the most powerful municipal entity in LA. While there are larger buildings than this one in the city and there are those more flamboyant, there is likely none more important than DWP Headquarters.

This said, our relationship to water in Los Angeles has changed. A dark history and parched present render DWP’s style and effects painfully naive. The curious reticence of anonymous substations seems the affect to go with now. The project proceeds through three phases, each treated as discrete design problems: exteriority, interiority, and ambivalent synthesis.

Students: Sami Boukai, Tzu-Jung Chang, Jonathan Chiang, Dokyung Kim, Andrew Ko, Devin Koba, Haiyi Lai, Jeannette Mundy, Jade Narrido, Achariyar Rojanapirom, Tuan Gia Tran and Tessa Watson.


Jason Payne