Monday, December 7, 2009

Electrical substation (transformer house) - Monday November 30, 4:00 pm

This site is an electrical substation operated by Toronto Hydro-Electric, located at 640 Millwood Rd. The substation is referred to as a transformer because it processes energy it receives from other power stations in Ontario, and transforms it into more manageable amounts. It then circulates the energy to local houses. The transformer is disguised inside a structure designed to resemble a two-storey house. The house has two large windows on the first “floor” and two on the second. The glass is frosted so it is difficult to get a good look inside, but a table lamp is visible in one window and a binder or manual in the other. A flagstone path leads up to the house, and there are three tall shrubs planted outside. If you walk up the driveway, you can see that the house extends further back than a normal house would, and has a large backyard. A white picket fence and a black and orange reflective post are meant to deter people from trespassing.

The house itself does not seem to emit any heat or noise, although I did not get very close to it. It is not lit up in anyway. The weather is chilly but bright, and there are children walking home from school on the opposite side of the street. There are several cars parked in front of the house, but none of the neighbours seem to be around, and there are no signs of animals. No one has stopped to look at the house, although a woman walking her dog stops momentarily to watch me take photos. Unless you are a Hydro-Electric employee, one’s role at the site is simply to stay away from it.

Observing the transformer, I was reminded by how easy it is to ignore it, because it was designed to be ignored. I walk by the transformer on my way to work every day, and I have never stopped to look at it. I remembered asking my parents about the house as a child; I must have noticed that there was something not quite right about it. I remember wondering what the people who lived next door thought about it, if it made noise, if they liked having a machine for a neighbour. What struck me about the house’s design is how idealistic it is. The house (complete with white picket fence) looks too perfect, and does not really blend with the architecture of the neighbourhood. Rather than disguise the presence of an electrical transformer, the house is instead the proverbial elephant in the room.

The only blatant signs that this is not a normal house are faded hazard symbols attached to the front door and the fence, warning people not to go near the house. The warning signs, although absolutely necessary, are emblematic of a larger relationship with natural forces. At a time when so many energy options are available to us – wind, water, solar – most people continue to rely on energy sources that they have been taught to fear. Electricity is a scary thing, a power source that we are trained to treat with caution from a young age. Perhaps this is why I was so intrigued with the house as a child. It conjures a mixture of fear and curiosity. The feeling that electricity is dangerous, which it undoubtedly can be, is supposed to be assuaged by hiding this power source inside a home - a symbol of comfort and familiarity. I wonder whether people would be more or less fearful were the transformer exposed.

In “The Metabolism of Cities”, Herbert Girardet explains that we take energy for granted because “the impacts of our energy use on the environment… are not experienced directly,” an ignorance that is enabled by transformer houses. Girardet discusses the importance of local energy sources. The beneficial impacts of buying locally grown food are widely known, but these principles can be applied to energy as well. The transformer receives energy coming from more distant power plants and distributes it to the houses surrounding it. If we used local energy, from roof-top solar panels, or windmills, energy would not have to come from so far away, and we could conserve more of it. If people began to explore alternative energy sources, we could decrease our dependence on traditional electricity, strengthening and making visible our relationship with energy. We could thereby eliminate the need for transformer houses.

The transformer house is constitutive of a human nature relationship, but more specifically, it is an elaborate effort to obscure this relationship. The hidden network of electricity that runs through our cities effectively “urbanizes” nature because it makes a product of civilization appear inevitable and timeless. The human-harnessed force of electricity is something people take for granted. Only during blackouts do people reconsider their relationship with electricity. When the power comes back on, our reliance on electrical systems is quickly forgotten. The purpose of transformer houses is to “sanitize” nature – to neatly disguise our relationship with it. They also allow us to conveniently push aside our environmental responsibilities and unsustainable energy usage – out of sight, out of mind. The transformer house is an expression of our desire to ignore nature, to forget about our dependence on its power and to calm our fears about its dangers.

Link to photo collection of other transformer houses:


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