House of the Rising Sun (Helios House, Los Angeles (CA), USA)

It’s perhaps unsurprising to find an exemplar of gas station design in Los Angeles, that most car-centric of cities. But to find one which was conceived as much in a desire for environmental improvements in such buildings as it was in visual impact, is more of a surprise. That’s the sort of thing you’d expect in San Francisco. But this is California after all, and if anywhere in America was going to pioneer a greener way of thinking about gas stations, it was probably inevitable that it would be somewhere in the Golden State.

Helios House. Photo by C-Monster [CC BY-NC 2.0] via this flickr page

Helios House stands on West Olympic Boulevard, about halfway between Downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica. It opened in 2007 and was designed by architecture practices Office dA and Johnston Marklee for petroleum giant BP (Architizer also credits BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) with a role but that firm doesn’t mention the project on its website). At the time, BP was engaged in a project it named The Green Curve, promoting the idea that we could all do our bit for the environment by trying to make small improvements in our environmental impact. Helios House was BP’s attempt to demonstrate the concept in gas station form.

The station features rainwater harvesting, solar photovoltaics on the canopy roof, and a green roof on top of the restroom building. Motion sensors in the restroom building ensure lights turn on only when there are people using the facilities. Recycled materials are used throughout the gas station’s construction, both structurally and for fittings.

Helios House detail. Photo by Suwatch from new york city, usa [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Quite apart from these environmental considerations, it also looks quite unlike any other gas station. Its structure is formed from hundreds of stainless steel triangular panels (not recycled, but fully recyclable), arranged in a deconstructivist style to flow from canopy down onto supporting columns and cashier’s kiosk without any clear break between elements. The gas station is illuminated (by low energy LED lighting) at night, and looks rather fantastic. It is one of those all-too-rare non-ugly non-crap filling stations this blog really likes, and which prove that filling stations don’t have to be the spirit-sapping hellholes most of them currently seem to be.

Helios House, illuminated at night. Photo by Detlef Schobert [CC BY-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

While Helios House succeeded in aesthetic terms, creating the “memorable structure in the neighbourhood” that the architects sought, its technical success in changing the way gas stations are designed has been rather more qualified.

Having achieved some good publicity/greenwash (depending on your point of view) with Helios House, cynics of Big Oil’s motives will be delighted and unsurprised to note that BP soon lost interest in the project. These days, Helios House sells Arco-branded fuel instead.

Helios House – now selling ARCO fuel. Photo by Detlef Schobert [CC BY-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

It left behind some intriguing questions. Why, as late as 2007, were well-established ideas like rainwater harvesting, motion activated lighting and solar PV seen by BP as worthy of making such a fuss about? BP said it wasn’t supposed to be a station for the future but about making today a little better (though it also said it was, “Not as green as we hope to make it in the future.“) So why is the present, let alone the future, taking so very long to arrive? Here we are, 10 years later, and most filling stations are still being built to the same soulless, ugly, and wasteful designs to which Helios House was supposed to be an alternative.

Actually, don’t answer. I don’t want to know.

How to find Helios House

Click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map

Bibliography and Further Reading

You won’t find information about Helios House on BP’s website any more. Green gas stations are so last decade. Luckily the Wayback Machine has archived the information, so you can still read BP’s webpage on the station (here) and a factsheet it produced (here).

Helios House project page at Johnston Marklee’s website, here

Helios House project page at Monica Ponce de Leon’s website (one of the partners in Office dA before it closed), here

…and anything linked to in the text above


4 thoughts on “House of the Rising Sun (Helios House, Los Angeles (CA), USA)

  1. I never understand the rationale of the oil giants… surely to be truly ahead of the game you want to have your crude fingers in the latest pie. So that when market forces/climate change or economics force us lazy arsed consumers to change to renewables then you are already ahead of the game. Or has that just happened any nobody knows?

  2. Is that why we have a truly confusing electric charging network… I’d go electric tomorrow. But I want simpicity… ONE card for ONE network – wherever I go (in the uk at least)… too much to ask?

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