Blueprint for the Future

If you talk to architect Alan Goldberg about his profession, you probably won’t hear much about the many landmark buildings he has designed and worked on over the years. Not the Seagram’s Building or the American Airlines terminal at JFK, or any of the numerous houses he has created. And it’s possible he won’t even mention rubbing elbows with Mies van der Rohe, or his long association with Eliot Noyes and other pioneers of the modernist movement. It isn’t that Goldberg is a falsely modest man — he readily admits that the field of architecture is abundantly populated with oversized egos — simply that he’s more focused on the future than the past. And the first step toward that future, he believes, will likely take the form of a gas station, one that not only redefines the way we think about fueling our automobiles but also the very fuel by which they’re powered.

Long before former vice president Al Gore released An Inconvenient Truth, the Oscar-winning documentary about global warming, and far earlier than President Bush began hyping ethanol as a supplemental source of energy, Alan Goldberg anticipated the need to shift from petroleum to the next generation of power. To prepare for that, he has designed a revolutionary new service station for the dispensing of alternative fuels. Biodiesel, ethanol, plug-in electric, hydrogen power, natural gas — but not gasoline — are all part of the mix, and with the proper alignment of government and industry support, this futuristic station of tomorrow could be ready as early as, well, tomorrow.

Goldberg, whose youthful face and trim physique belie his seventy-six years, was born in New York and earned his architectural degree at Washington University in St. Louis. He joined the St. Louis office of city planning shortly after graduation and then, subsequent to a stint in the army, was hired by an architectural firm in New York City, working with Mies van der Rohe on the Seagram’s Building while he was there. Ten years later, in 1966, he hooked up with Eliot Noyes and moved to New Canaan, and the “next station to heaven” has been his home ever since.

Although Alan was hired by Noyes for his experience in building high-rises, his abilities extend well beyond any one genre. “He brings an extra dimension of creativity to modern architecture,” confirms Jack Hough. “His houses are magnificent.” Hough, a New Canaan resident, lived for many years on Valley Road in a home that was created by Noyes’ and Goldberg’s firm, AG/ENA. When he decided to enlarge it, he called upon Goldberg, principal of the company, to manage the details. “He did a brilliant job,” Hough says.

“Alan has integrity and convictions, and he’s never wavered in his belief in modern architecture,” Vince Falotico observes. “And he takes the commissions that allow him to pursue his beliefs.” Falotico, a principal at Gullens & Brooks Associates, worked at AG/ENA for eight years, with Goldberg serving as his mentor. “I’ve learned so much from him,” Vince says.

So what, you may wonder, is a versatile architect, one who is intimately associated with modern and postmodern design, doing tinkering with a high-tech truck stop? Actually, the idea is not as crazy as it seems. For one thing, generations of architects, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Philip Johnson to Frank Gehry, have looked to corporations for marquee projects, and it is hard to imagine a bigger marquee than the ubiquitous filling station. Additionally, and perhaps more to the point, AG/ENA listed Mobil Oil among its clients for a quarter of a century. “We thought we could make the corporation a good citizen by making them look good,” Alan chuckles ruefully. “We were all so naïve.” Although Mobil and AG/ENA parted company more than a dozen years ago, he continues to nurse the notion that energy concerns and responsible citizenship needn’t be in opposition.

“I realized back then that there was an awful lot of hostility [toward oil companies], and that we should be doing something to make a station that was more compatible with a community,” Alan states. So he sketched out a plan, electing to substitute a parklike setting for the sea of asphalt that tends to surround such installations. He also aimed to improve the circulation of automobiles through the station by establishing a one-way, circular layout for the pumps. “It’s like coming down a street looking for a parking space,” he explains. “If it’s open you pull in; if not, you go around again until a pump’s been vacated.” This system would have the positive side benefit of cutting down on the number of accidents that tend to occur when people make hurried pit stops, he believes.

Royal Dutch Shell was intrigued by the concept and gave it a long look, but ultimately its executives decided that Alan needed to bring other people on board before they would go further. “Who’s going to believe an architect?” he shrugs. To lend the plan greater credibility, he crafted a coalition including various manufacturers of buildings, gas pumps, station canopies, even sign and graphics experts.

As time passed and the price of oil shot up, the subject of alternative energy began to gain traction, especially in California, where Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made a public commitment to hydrogen power. “I kept reading hydrogen, hydrogen, hydrogen, and I thought, ‘what are they talking about, this is something that’s way in the future,’” Goldberg notes. “And then I got to thinking, a hydrogen station and a gas station are identical, you dispense it more or less the same way, it’s just the product you’re selling that’s different.” After reading up on the subject, he came to the conclusion that hydrogen power is no longer the stuff of science fiction. “It’s a lot closer than we think,” he says. “General Motors is making thirteen hydrogen cars available in the New York metropolitan area; they could make 10,000 tomorrow if there was a market for them.” Toyota and Honda, he adds, are even further along.

These automobiles are electric, Alan points out, running on a fuel cell — not a battery — that is supplied with hydrogen rather than charged with a current. “You just keep feeding it hydrogen, and it creates the electricity that drives the car,” he says. “That’s the future, but the future is now.” Hydrogen is preferable to biodiesel, electric plug-in, ethanol and all the other options, he feels, because it is a homegrown, renewable product that should — if made correctly — be totally clean. “You can get it out of almost anything,” Alan observes, “air, wind, electrolysis. In Buffalo, they’re using the hydraulics in the falls; it’s free, clean and renewable. That’s the best way.”

 

Excited by what he’d learned, Alan went back to the drawing board, modifying his design to accommodate hydrogen, in addition to other alternative fuels. Concurrently, he enrolled in the National Hydrogen Association, becoming the sole architectural firm on a membership list that includes British Petroleum, Chevron, Shell, Toyota, Honda, United Technologies, General Electric and a number of universities. Bearing in mind his previous negotiating experience with Shell, he formed a new coalition, partnering with Shell Hydrogen, Frey-Moss and Hydrogenics, several of the bigger players in the hydrogen field.
With his team in place and the blueprints drawn up, Alan was ready to go. But, unlike a normal construction project, in which the client contacts and hires an architect to design the building, with the alternative fuel station, Alan found himself in the reverse position of having to create his own prospects. “You need to go out and build your project, and then get funding,” he says. “And the funding comes from the state and federal governments, which are very bureaucratic. It’s been a tough sell.”

Goldberg and his wife, Trudy, a full professor and head of the doctoral program at Adelphi University, have two sons and five grandchildren living in the Golden State. It was thus not surprising that he first looked there to get his fuel station off the ground, especially with California moving rapidly ahead of most other states in the field of alternative fuels. When it was announced that Sacramento intended to fund three hydrogen stations, paying a million dollars for each one, Alan submitted his proposal. In the end, however, all of the contracts were awarded to California-based companies. “It wasn’t really open to everybody,” he concludes.

Every occupation has its share of disappointments, of course, from the ladder-climbing corporate executive who fails to obtain a coveted promotion to the orchestra musician endlessly aching to perform a solo to the ballplayer who never reaches the World Series. But for architects to see a plan become a reality, they need financing from a client, the approval of a zoning commission and a contractor to build it, and at virtually every step along the way there are pitfalls that can derail a dream design. Take the National Soaring Museum in Elmira, New York. AG/ENA drafted plans for what Alan describes as his most exciting building ever. But, before ground could be broken, the collection of gliders, many on loan from the Smithsonian, was destroyed by a fire. So little cash remained after replacing the lost planes, which were uninsured, that the resulting structure, by necessity, looked more like a warehouse than a work of art. “All too often your best work isn’t built,” Alan remarks matter-of-factly.

Still, while the original blueprints for the Soaring Museum may remain forever in his portfolio, Goldberg is doggedly pushing ahead with his new-style service station. The announcement nearly two years ago of a $200 billion, 200-acre development, Destiny USA, in Syracuse, New York, to be heated and cooled with renewable fuels and with $1 million earmarked for hydrogen stations, looked to be an ideal fit. In early March, after taking four months to consider Alan’s proposal, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority turned it down. “They thought it was a very attractive concept, but they could only fund hydrogen stations,” he reports. “This one dispenses hydrogen, but that’s not the prime fuel.”

Although Alan favors hydrogen, according to his calculations there is a greater near-term need for biodiesel, ethanol and plug-in electric, and he allocated the dispensing space of his station accordingly. “Are you going to build a big hydrogen station if there are only three or four hydrogen cars?” he asks rhetorically.

“You need to have a certain minimum number of vehicles,” agrees Vince Falotico, of Gullens & Brooks, who intends to work with his former boss on this project. “Therefore there’s real merit to a station that distributes more than one fuel, because no one really knows where it’s going to go from here.”

Indeed, with the federal government sitting on the sidelines, automobile manufacturers and energy companies remain unsure which direction to take. As a consequence they are testing numerous technologies, many of which, like VHS and Betamax, are not complementary and may never function together. “That there’s no consistency may not be bad,” AG/ENA’s principal feels, “because the market will eventually come up with a winner.”

So far scientists at both ends of the spectrum seem to be facing a kind of catch-22. The car companies have indicated they can produce the vehicles, but they are not interested in doing so on a large scale until there are enough refueling stations to support them. The energy services responsible for hydrogen power and other fuels, on the other hand, respond by saying that there’s no sense in setting up costly stations if there are no cars on the road. “Everybody wants to research it to death, to get that fuel cell perfect,” Alan says. “They should get it out there into the community now. In time it will become what they hope it will be.”

While it may appear odd that a successful architect would use the leverage of his reputation to wade into this fray, devoting so much time and effort to so speculative a venture, Jack Hough believes that Goldberg is guided less by any hopes of material reward than by his lifelong concern for the environment. Alan articulates his commitment another way: “Modern architecture can take so many forms and shapes, but it should be looking to the future, not the past, facing some of the problems we have with energy.” This view echoes a relatively new branch of the discipline, known as sustainable architecture, in which buildings are crafted in part from recycled materials and there is a special sensitivity to ecological impact. “Not only is that the right thing to do, but the integration of technology for energy conservation, lighting, recycling water, control of the elements, that gives you a lot of opportunities for design,” Goldberg says.

Additional insight into his thinking was provided when Alan spoke about a career in architecture earlier this year to a group of high school students. He emphasized that it is not a nine-to-five job, that one cannot indulge in it casually. Rather, architecture is a constant learning experience that becomes your life, he said. “Whether you do a hospital, a museum or a school, you always try to experiment, do something different. And it should give you a lot of joy, and a sense of accomplishment.”

This intrepid architect continues to target the Destiny USA development. He notes that there are currently 110 construction vehicles around the site that operate on either biodiesel or ethanol, in addition to the state-operated fleet of about 1,000 traditionally powered autos. “You need a nucleus of cars to make this work,” he says, and New York would seem to have it. His proposal is now in the hands of destiny.

Not that Alan is leaving so momentous a matter to fate. He also contributed his insights to a report drafted by the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology that has since been submitted to the state assembly. In spite of his input, that document, known prosaically as the Fuel Cell Economic Development Plan Hydrogen Roadmap, contains far less about cars and stations than a drive to lower the cost of electricity through the use of alternative energy. Cheaper electricity, this business-oriented group believes, will make Connecticut more attractive to enterprises looking for a place in which to set up shop. The silver lining in all of this, Goldberg suggests, is that Connecticut now has more companies working on one form of fuel cell or another than any other state. “There is hope,” he says, “with proper leadership.”

Hope took a big step forward on April 10, when the first fuel cell–powered bus in New England rolled onto the streets of Hartford, thanks in part to a $2.9 million federal grant, and to the involvement of UTC Power, which is affiliated with United Technologies Corporation. Reportedly quiet and smooth-riding, the vehicle, which runs on hydrogen, emits water vapor, not toxic gases. A similar hydrogen-fuel-cell bus may soon debut in New Haven.

At this stage of the project, Alan feels his innovative design is secondary to the task of keeping the coalition focused on all the lobbying yet to come. “People say, ‘I want the planet to be better for the next generation.’ Well, how about our generation? It’s doable,” he insists. “It’s just a matter of will, and government support.”

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