Towers and Trucks; Anchorage Firestations



I’m sorry for the tardiness, but let’s talk about fire stations. I’m happy that my friend Keenan brought up the topic, and I agree that there have been several new fire stations built here in Anchorage. I find it fascinating that this invaluable building type receives so little attention, except in certain circles. It seems that the purpose of the building, albeit public, is secret or never considered. Fire stations are truly interesting buildings, programmatically, and formally.

Fire stations are straightforward. The purpose of a fire station is to house firemen (and firewomen) and their equipment. I find it immensely interesting that the firefighters live in the station, with their equipment and their rucks. When they get the call, they slip into action and slide down a pole (or at least they used to) to rush out of the garage. These buildings function almost like a mixed-use development: there is a light-industrial use of the ground floor and residential and office spaces above.

Although I have never designed a fire station, it must be difficult to understand who the primary user is. The trucks and equipment dominate the square footage, but the firefighters actually live in these buildings. Should the architect design for the trucks, devoting the space, proximity to the street, connexion to the other spaces, or should the architect devote himself to the humans in the space? Although the humanist would decry even the notion that machines, furthermore automobiles, should take precedent to the person, the fact remains: the station is for the trucks. Firefighters have shifts; the trucks are in the garage all the time.

In light of this epiphany, that fire stations are buildings for trucks not persons, architects should celebrate the trucks. Make the garage doors spectacular, make the floor gleam—reflecting the shining metal of the carriages—make the façade so devoted to the garage that it frightens passerby. I’m not advocating for a blank wall of garage doors, like Fire Station 6 on Debarr or Fire Station 3 on Airport Heights, but a glorious colonnade of galleries devoted to the trucks. Give them glass through which to see; let them gaze on the world they protect.

Fire stations used to have a particular form; although they were not true ducks because they did not look like fire or fire trucks, they did have a characteristic appearance. They were squat rectangular affairs with large doors on the front, and generally had two storeys. Most importantly, they had a tall tower, brick or metal—though rarely glass—for drying the fire hoses. Today, many stations have ovens for drying, negating the need for a tower. As a result, they have devolved into banal garages, ironically painted fire engine red, in tribute. I believe that ducks should look like ducks: churches should look like churches and fire stations should look like…you get the idea.

Fire Station 1 on the edge of Downtown Anchorage is the only fire station that comes close to looking the part. It has two storeys and a tall tower. The tower, incased in glass, exhibits the drying hoses like an art case. The garage is exquisite and fantastic. Five regular bays with glazed maws display the gleaming trucks. Likely, KPB Architects design the project at an enormous cost to taxpayers. They form is a basic broken box. They put what I can only assume are the offices—or the living quarters (it’s really hard to tell)—with arbitrary ribbon windows—because ribbon windows are fun—in a bridge-like structure. This elevated box could be a bad copy of the La Tourette monastery by Le Corbusier. The monastery provides an horizontal datum over a sloping site. The fire station mimics the form, but forgoes the message. The garage is in the back of the building, so the passerby can’t ogle at the shining steel behind the glass doors. I’m sure there was a kitschy metaphor behind the materials and colors, but I don’t really care. There was a chance for greatness, but KPB came up short.

Conversely, the Fire Station 4 is embarrassing. I have little praise for it, formally, architecturally, even æsthetically. First, there is no tower. Second, the garage is far away from the road and the doors are opaque. The human entrance seems woefully inadequate and the general orientation of the building seems wrong. The side facing Debarr should be the front, whereas the side facing Beaver appears to the back, but it is the front. Nothing screams fire station from its appearance along and only its bulk and adjacency to the road describe its purpose. Of course, Downtown gets the cool station whereas Muldoon has to settle for vulgarity.

The fact is, Anchorage has no great fire station. KPB got close, but I fear ego prevented success. I am not a fan of progress for progress’ sake, so innovation in fire stations seems unwarranted. Therefore, architects need to design pretty fire stations that look the part. The script is written; it frees the designer to add flourish, pizazz, and elegance. Don’t let hubris handicap the delivery.

Next time, ADUs. Until then, keep the faith and good night my loves.

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