Industrial poetry at the Brightwater treatment plant

There's beauty in those pipes and pumps, as well as in the public art. The real triumph comes from the matching of form and function in a sewage treatment facility.

Crosscut archive image.

Wedding setting? A lounge at the Brightwater community center.

There's beauty in those pipes and pumps, as well as in the public art. The real triumph comes from the matching of form and function in a sewage treatment facility.

The other day when reporters toured the spanking-new Brightwater sewage treatment plant in Woodinville, someone asked Michael Popiwny, the facility’s architectural design manager, if he expects people might book weddings here.

“Absolutely,” Popiwny replied. He wasn’t kidding.

It’s not inconceivable. There’s an unfancy but exquisitely designed community room at the north end of the facility that, except for a possible shortfall of parking, would make a perfectly respectable wedding venue. There’s no whiff of the plant’s principal product anywhere on the site. A wedding here would decidedly tweak the usual how-we-started-out marriage narrative.

But the most interesting architectual forms out here aren’t the ones intended as architecture. They’re the immense pipes, pumps, conduits, and other purely engineer-driven structures planted in rhythmic rows, and their effect is stunning simply because they’re so damn big and there are so many of them.

It’s industrial poetry, whatever vile prose might be flowing through the machinery. It’s the majesty of form following function, yes, and something more: it reminds us of the universality of functional form. You can see the circulatory system of a tree abstracted in Brightwater. There are underlying orders in nature, and human-created design is performing at its best when it taps into them.

Brightwater took a lot of design. Seattle’s Mithun was responsible for the architecture. Hargreaves Associates designed the landscape (the 114-acre site includes restored salmon spawning ponds and three miles of nature trails). MWH and Jacobs Associates were the engineers.

If that sounds like a lot of complexity and cost, it is. Brightwater’s press material calls it “probably the most complicated capital project” King County has ever undertaken. To place the $1.8 billion cost in perspective, add up Safeco Field, CenturyLink (Qwest) Field, the Gates Foundation headquarters, and two Boeing 787s.

Architect Sean Cryan, Mithun’s Brightwater project manager, explained the understanding he hopes visitors will take away from the plant: “That we can’t separate industrial infrastructure from our everyday lives. It’s not a matter of flushing a toilet and everything goes away. The more we can integrate art and architecture and landscape into the process, the more it can enhance our lives.”

Most of Brightwater’s buildings are strictly functional concrete boxes, but there’s more architecture in them than greets the first-glancing eye. First, they’re stylistically woven together by a simple design theme: north and south sides are solid, east and west ends are perforated with windows, usually with a splash of wall color around them.

If you look closely, you’ll see inspired details that relate to the heavy-duty industrial guts of the place. The best of these is the entry to the “Solids Facility,” a Mondrian-like composition of black I-beams, a scaled-down echo of the interior beams that support the roof. This isn’t a new idea; it’s been done before, so often that it’s almost cliché, but rarely with the perfect proportioning and finesse that it is here.

Visitors will be able to tour these buildings and their mechanical viscera, but it’s likely they’ll be distracted by the plentiful art scattered around the plant — 15 pieces in all, commissioned through King County’s 4Culture in compliance with the One Percent for Art program. (The total spent for art at Brightwater was $4.4 million, based on the eligible above-ground construction and design costs.) Some of the pieces are obvious, like a giant water molecule, and some need to be explained (there’s a cell-phone audio tour, helpfully), but there’s a good degree of intrigue and provocation among them. Sewage treatment turns out to be a better inspiration for art than your average government office building.

Another distraction is the Environmental Education and Community Center, which incorporates the room that might be scored for a wedding. It’s not a relative of the mechanical buildings at all; it clearly broadcasts a different personality and purpose. And even though it’s simple, it’s thoughtfully and strikingly designed.

In form, it looks like a long, low wooden shed cocked over a CMU (concrete masonry unit, or block) box, cantilevered over a grassy falling slope at one end. The shed resonates with the shape of the land and energizes the box. A long spinal walkway is framed in reclaimed fir beams from a defunct storage building. Weathered and beaten up, they engage in an interesting dialogue with the stark, impersonal concrete. Inside and out, there’s more water- and plumbing-themed art, and windows strategically placed to provide sylvan views of a restored pond but not the industrial grit of the plant.

That leads to a possible criticism of the architecture: That it backs away from a full-on, head-banging encounter with the industrial essence of the wastewater treatment process — and by extension, with the full implications of the infrastructure needed to support a modern metro area of 4 million people. Maybe it shouldn’t be so graceful, prettified — and sanitized.

But in fact, the technology that lets a plant like this pass the sniff test, and more importantly meet the environmental standards for dumping our prodigious waste into Puget Sound, is itself magnificent and elegant. It deserves real architecture and art around it.

Just don’t get sidetracked: the real beauty is in those pipes and pumps.

  

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