Hydroelectric plants have become colossal works in the history of the 20th century and have inspired architects like Le Corbusier who found in the construction of reservoirs the optimization of technology and the ideal of a “new spirit.” As authentic “complete works” that integrate engineering, architecture and art, the reservoirs express the encounter between nature and human infrastructure in a paradigmatic way, generating a sublime landscape thanks to the act and the form of containment in the territory.
Electricity has been one of the most important and impressive technical developments for 20th century society. In 1901, the writer Emile Zola presaged: “There will come a day when electricity is everyone’s, like the waters of rivers, and the wind of the sky”(1) and in 1914 Antonio Sant’Elia drew the power plant as one of the most representative works of the New City, a metropolis that would reach its splendor during the night, when the light of the sun would give way to electrical energy demonstrating the technological and aesthetic triumph of man over nature.
(1) E. Zola, Trabajo (Work)(Madrid: Ediciones de la Torre, 1991)
Despite the benefits of this phenomenon, over the past century, the growing industrial process and the evolution of the demand for energy have created a supply problem in virtually the entire world. With different scales and development according to the country, one of the most used means of energy production has been hydroelectric power because of its economic benefits and efficiency. The architect Vicente Temes defined these constructions in 1954 as “urbanism applied to the rivers” (2) for their multiple possibilities of use: production of electricity, defense against floods, creation of irrigated areas, opening of communication and trade routes, water supply among others. With the dam as the main element, they became a benchmark for creators such as Le Corbusier who, on several occasions, chose dams as the emblem of the new spirit in architecture, declaring for the first time his impressions of an immense reservoir under construction in the Alps: ” A seminal work” he wrote, “it is the great premise of the future” (3). An attentive reader of his time, he sensed the project possibilities that the different elements of the complex would permit: dams, power stations, and worker settlements; each with its own territory and landscape. The characteristics of each site, as well as the solutions adopted for the dam and the auxiliary buildings − of such a different scale and such a difficult formal solution − would offer an optimal field for collaboration between multiple disciplines, generating a complete work in the Corbusierian way. “I have been to the Alps and I have seen one of the most beautiful creations that human initiative can achieve: the Barberine dam” (4).
(2) V. Temes, «La arquitectura de los aprovechamientos hidroeléctricos» (The architecture of hydroelectric exploitation), Revista Nacional de Arquitectura 147 (Madrid, 1954)
(3) Le Corbusier, Urbanisme (París: Crés, 1925)
(4) T. Benton, The Rhetoric of Modernism: Le Corbusier as a Lecturer (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2009)
Another monumental hydraulic project, which was of special interest to the architect, was the macroproject of the Tennesse Valley Authority (TVA), developed in the early thirties in the United States. As he remembered in his words: “Man and nature, the laws of nature and the calculations that express the laws of the world, human imagination in search of harmony… Negligence had triggered catastrophic events in the valley. Things were going from bad to worse. Nature was taken by the hand and, finally, her anger was calmed; once again she became motherly. The cyclic flow of water has caused a wonderful regeneration; men meet again with abundance and promise of happiness. In the domain of nature, they felt proud to have created the great dams that are carriers of physical and spiritual splendor” (5).
(5) Le Corbusier, When the cathedrals were White (Nueva York: Reinald and Hitchcock, 1947)
The complete work of the TVA took the idea of interdisciplinary integration to the limit. Now they were not just big dams − like the emblematic one of Norris − with its hydroelectric plants, auxiliary buildings and villages for the workers. Landscaping, agricultural exploitation, territorial accessibility, the design of complete settlements, among others, also appeared within an extraordinary project that, with its achievements and failures, revealed the authentic technical and functional dimension of the reservoirs, including as an aesthetic claim, an aspect that still survives today, with examples such as the French television series Les Revenants (2012), where the dam is the protagonist that serves to relate nature and artifice, life and death, in a small alpine village.
This inspiring component of reservoirs can also be found in art, with a work as significant as Valley Curtain, proposed by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in the seventies in Rifle, Colorado. As if it were a large dam, the orange curtain dramatically cuts across the valley offering its monumental geometry, in this case light and mutable, over the existing geography. Once again, the technological and aesthetic triumph of man over nature and territory arises as part of the landscape project. That is what Le Corbusier wrote in his Entretien avec les étudiants des Ecolesd’Architecture: “it could be a weekend house or an immense palace, a hydraulic dam or a factory, the call to the imagination remains constant”(6).
(6) Le Corbusier, Entretien avec les étudiants des Ecoles d’Architecture (París: Minuit, 1957)
Antonio S. Río Vázquez. PhD in Architecture and Professor in the Department of Architectural Projects, Urban Planning and Composition of the University of Coruña. He has been a visiting professor at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen (United Kingdom), and la Universidade do Minho (Portugal) y en la Università degli Studi di Roma La Sapienza (Italia).