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Advanced Water Treatment Plant

Selected Artist's Notes

Introductory Thoughts

Artists often create an artwork based upon its intended site. Sometimes we modify a site to incorporate it into the work. My experience has made me acutely aware of the multitude of conditions in commissioned art, beyond the site, that affect the work. Within the Advanced Water Treatment Plant (AWTP) project, I saw an opportunity to begin the work by first negotiating some of these conditions.

Many of the public art projects I have been involved with have been connected to civic infrastructure projects that have substantial cultural meaning. The timing of when an artist might begin work on such a project is a significant factor that controls how the artist might be able to affect this meaning. Although early decisions concerning programming, schematic design, etc. may define the cultural significance of these projects, the artist is often not onboard when these decisions are made.

Infrastructure projects are designed by collaborations of large groups of people with various areas of expertise. For a project such as the AWTP there are scores of engineers within the group, most with a technical specialization. In addition, there is oftentimes an architect, a landscape architect, and other types of designers that have expertise in creating buildings and landscapes.

'Engineers might refer to this contingent as providing the "visual design" of the project. Because my interests regarding the AWTP extended beyond the visual, and for lack of a better term, I have adopted the phrase "conceptual/visual design" to describe these interests.

Most of my public commissions have been collaborations, of one sort or another. In almost all cases, my primary collaborators (architects, landscape architects, etc.) have been selected before (sometimes long before) I am asked to engage the project. Oftentimes, these collaborators are involved in the selection of the artist. I ask if this is the best process.

In some cases, it may have been better to first commission the artist. I've wondered if I were commissioned first, and had the opportunity to select the other collaborators, if my choices would be different than would otherwise be made. I've wondered if my choices would produce a different project than would otherwise be produced. I've wondered how it might be different.

The AWTP allowed me to pursue this line of inquiry. I was commissioned to work on a team with a previously selected architect and landscape architect. I met with the landscape architect, Steve Estrada, and found him to be talented and interested in the project. I met with the project architect and found him to be uninterested in exploring, what I knew to be, the potential of the project.

Doug Owen of Malcolm Pirnie allowed me the opportunity to create an "Art Team" by commissioning a different and additional architect, of my choice, to work directly with me to explore what the conceptual/visual design might be if I were leading the effort. He endorsed this endeavour, provided me with a sufficient budget, and permitted those I chose to work with to attend meetings.

Artist's Approach

At the beginning of the design process, Doug Owen was clear that the project's architect would be responsible for the architectural design and architectural drawings and that the project's landscape architect would be responsible for landscape design and related drawings. My role was to fall entirely outside of the formal system of project documents. If I created drawings they would be for my use, perhaps in expressing my activities, but they would not be part of the design or construction package of the project.

It was agreed that the project engineer and architect, if they wished, could adapt any recommendations I might make regarding the project, in whole or part, but my role would be wholly advisory. The engineer encouraged me to be a bricoleur and reserved the right to be influenced by the result.

I could engage the project as a hypothetical. If I were responsible for the creation of this project, what might it be? It allowed me to engage in a dialogue, and explore issues that were of interest to me, with an engineer, an architect, and a landscape architect who were in support of such inquiry.

We pursued a critical examination of the project and a rigorous inquiry into meanings associated with it. I wanted to encourage the creation of a design that would express and reflect upon this process. I didn't want the exercise to result in a folly - I intended my tinkering to result in a hypothetical, yet highly practical design - imbued with culture - that could, in the future, be compared to the actual built facility.

The result was a conceptual/visual design that was in every aspect different than what would have otherwise occurred. The Art Team's proposal included a completely new site plan, new equipment layouts, new chemical unloading and storage areas, improved operational and maintenance capabilities, structural systems, and a landscaping design that eliminated the necessity for site material export.

This project demonstrated that when given adequate means, including the opportunity to select my collaborators, I was capable of leading a conceptual/visual design process for a major infrastructure project that was of great quality by engineering, architectural, and landscape design standards. It disproved assumptions that an artist-led design would not be as functional, or as economical as other processes.


A major design issue we faced was the issue of camouflaging the project. There is a prevalent opinion, at least within the United States, that industrial projects are visually undesirable and that if at all possible, they should be hidden from view.

Public review processes regarding the construction of such facilities encourage this camouflaging. Normally, these processes seek the approval of nearby residents who, if unable to halt the project's construction, demand for it to be hidden. Undergrounding, if economically feasible, is oftentimes considered preferable. Banal architectural design and heavy landscaping is the most often applied technique.

The AWTP project site was across the street from the City's North City Water Reclamation Plant (NCWRP). The NCWRP was completed just prior to us beginning work on the AWTP. It had received accolades for its "stealthy" design.

The project was segmented into a number of buildings on the site, described as a "campus" plan. Each building was designed in a similar, nondescript, neutral beige, post-modern ornamental fashion common to many medium-budget commercial and light-industrial suburban buildings in southern California during the 1990s. The project architect for the AWTP had been involved with the design of the NCWRP administration building.

The NCWRP was camouflaged by the banality of its design. The Pre-Design Report for the AWTP, which had been approved by the City, specified that the AWTP's design would reflect that of the NCWRP.

Two decisions - the approved recommendation within the Pre-Design Report that the AWTP's design would reflect that of the NCWRP and the choice of the Project Architect - were the two decisions that could most affect the aesthetic quality of the AWTP. Yet both decisions were made without the consideration and advice of someone experienced in aesthetic decisions.

If I had accepted these decisions, my ability to affect the quality of the project would have been severely limited in comparison to what I might affect if I were able to pursue alternatives to these decisions.

Philosophical Framework

In some ways, designing a project that makes drinking water out of sewage with a camouflage of banality may be interesting. But this strategy of camouflage being the rule, rather than the exception within our design of civic infrastructure, and the intentions behind pursuing this strategy, lessened my interest in it. It was more interesting for me to consider a question such as: "If the design pursued the expression of meanings related to its function, what might this design be?"

Beneath the streets of San Diego and hidden away behind earth berms and dense landscaping, carved into hillsides and secreted beyond trite facades lies billions of dollars of civic infrastructure. Like the organs, arteries, and nerves of our bodies, these electrical, water, natural gas, wastewater, and communication systems are essential for the city's existence. And we have modeled their design like the organs, arteries, and nerves of our body, placing them behind visual membranes - hiding them - not only from view, but from our consciousness.

Although these facilities are essential to the maintenance of the urban landscape, except for the electrical lines stringing overhead, they are commonly not a visual part of this landscape. What if they were? What if these facilities were given the consideration of other public amenities? What might that project be?

San Diego imports almost ten times the amount of water that rain brings to the region. When I examined the history of water use in San Diego, I found that farming was a major consumer. A close examination of the region's economic history revealed fascinating information. There had been a recent shift in farming - from food - to flowers.

Until the mid-1980s, various food crops and livestock were the leading agricultural products. But by 1995, the value of nursery and flower production in the county grew to $643 million, nearly two-thirds of the value of all farm commodities produced. Indoor decorative plants became the leading crop, followed by ornamental trees and shrubs. San Diego was using its imported water to support an imported aesthetic of landscape. How might this knowledge influence our work on the AWTP?

A dozen years before, in the backyard of the AWTP site, Jean-Pierre Gorin shot his film Routine Pleasures, exploring the obsessions of a group of men who maintain a vast model railroad installation originally built for a county fair. In weekly sessions, since 1958, they have painstakingly maintained the idyllic landscape of the installation - while improving and updating the technological infrastructure that exists beneath the plaster hills and plastic buildings of its scenery.

How might Gorin's patient examination of this obsession influence our process of exploring the AWTP? How might his ability to capture the multiplicity and proliferation of meanings associated with such an enterprise influence what we see when we examine the AWTP?

From Concept to Design

Reviewing the preliminary documents of the project focused my attention on the facility's technology. As I read the reams of information the engineers provided me about the technologies involved, I began to imagine the facility as a large, high performance engine which - when properly tuned - would use vast amounts of electrical power to convert reclaimed water into a very pure drinking water. The reference to the modernist quest for Utopia was obvious. The faith upon science to cure our ills was pervasive.

How could I suggest this engine to others? How might the plant's design reveal its technology? How might the design of the facility suggest a critical examination of the social and cultural issues embedded within its programme?

The campus plan contained within the Pre-Design Report and already accepted by the city was not conducive to this. Segmenting the plant's parts into separate buildings would abstract the whole. Visitors would have to visit each building, remember what they saw, and combine and order each of these parts together within their minds to begin to conceive of the project as a whole.

The facility operated in a linear format, the reclaimed water would be moved from one process to the next while elements were extracted. I imagined lining up all of these processes and then building a shell around them so that they would all exist in a single large room.

A model for this type of building was the factory. I looked at the work of Peter Behrens and I began to think about what architect I would choose to work with if I were given that chance.

Architectural Collaborator

I have no interest in being an architect. I had no interest in attempting to design the AWTP myself. I had qualities that I would bring to the architectural design of the project, but I also knew that for the project to reach the potential I envisioned, I needed an architect that would bring abilities to the project that I did not have. Whilst it wasn't important for me to design the architecture, it was important for me to choose the architect that would work with me.

The pragmatic criteria for an architectural collaborator were real. I needed someone who was nearby so that we could easily spend time together. Fortunately, there is a large community of fine architects in the Los Angeles area. I wanted someone who could share my interest in the project's relationship to modernist order, and the conflicts regarding faith and technology, or could quickly offer a meaningful alternative direction. I wanted someone who would offer strengths to the collaboration, where I had weaknesses. I wanted someone who would embrace and contribute to an enriching dialogue. I needed someone who had the flexibility in their schedule to be able to contribute large blocks of time to the project, beginning the following week.

I arrived at a short list of four or five architects before deciding to approach Guthrie+Buresh Architects. Tom Buresh and I had worked together before, firstly when he was a Senior Designer in Frank Gehry's office, and later on a project that he and his wife, Danelle Guthrie, designed.

I met with Tom, reviewed the project with him, and explained how I envisioned the collaboration. He was initially concerned that I was seeking someone to merely draw what I designed. I assured him that I was looking for a collaborator who would take equal responsibility for creating a design, a collaborator who could not only be sincerely committed to the process of inquiry I was engaged in but could challenge me to do it better than I otherwise would.

Tools and Limits

One of the first decisions I must make on a project is the limit of my involvement. When Doug Owen suggested that I should not place limits on my thinking, it opened the doors for me to re-conceptualize every element of the project. The challenge of no limits comes with responsibilities.

In order to gain the respect of the project's engineers, in order to effectively work with them, I first had to study and achieve a good understanding of the mechanics and processes of such a facility. After that knowledge was acquired, it was evident that my perspective was different than others. I then tried to understand my perspective. How was my vision different than others? What made it different? Why was it different than others?  

My tools consisted of the internet, the video store, my library, and driving the freeways of southern California between my studio and the project site. I explored how order and narrative could be visually presented. I became enthralled with choreography, and how it was filmed, and spent time looking at dance and musical films of the 30s and 40s. As I thought about the project, and considered ways to respond to the social, economic, and cultural issues involved within it, the work of many artists came to mind.

I re-examined work by Richard Hamilton, Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Robert Irwin, Matt Mullican, Allan McCollum, Julian Opie, Chris Burden, Mathew Barney, and many others. I also studied automotive and motorcycle design, looked at a lot of Ferrari engines, Edelbrock manifolds, Holley carburetors, and Ducatis. Tom pointed me in the direction of Albert Kahn and we examined his buildings. I also watched the film Dune.

My work with the AWTP was broad-based, affecting many different disciplines of the project. My years of experience in working on architectural and engineering projects helped me to understand what was possible and what was not possible to achieve within the project.

I looked for ways to express the activity I was engaged in within all the disciplines of the project. I began by accepting the site's program, the scale of the facility, and the process equipment, but I laid out the facility on the site in a manner in every way different to the previously approved recommendations. My reasons for doing this were based on how the facility would be visually and physically experienced - and through this experience - be interpreted. I understood that this held great value for me.

But I also understood that engineers would judge the quality of the plan by different criteria and that my proposal would be more readily embraced if I demonstrated its functional and economic worth. I demonstrated that the Art Team's "engine" would function better, it would be easier to maintain, and it would cost less.

The criteria that would be consciously applied by the project's engineers to any of the Art Team proposals would be function and economics. Of course, the unconscious criteria were the more difficult ones for us to work with. The most apparent of these was accepting that the project would be seen, and not camouflaged. This being an exception to the rule for a civic infrastructure project, it made many of the engineers anxious. It was unfamiliar territory.

© Robert Millar, September 2003