If you say it right, “urban turbine” rhymes. But can it move beyond its oxymoronic wordplay and into the real world? Designers and architects are beginning to say yes.
In Chicago, Greenway Self-Park  uses urban wind power and sleek architectural design to spruce up the dull city garage. Greenway Self-Park, which opened at the end of 2009, has 12 turbines--which started moving this summer--attached to its side and is topped with a rain collection system. For HOK, the firm behind the project, green design was an opportunity for good design, something rarely seen in parking garages. That means a screen instead of a wall, giving the 11-story structure both an open look--that admits its automotive contents--and efficient ventilation, which helps lower energy costs.
“With the design, we took away the traditions of parking garages,” says Todd Halamka, director of design at the Chicago office of HOK. He wants to celebrate the building’s function, not hide it.
Greenway’s turbines were made by Helix Wind, though the initial plan was to use Aerotecture, a Chicago-based solar and wind energy company. But after studying the wind patterns near the garage, the company decided the site was too “low power,” says Bil Becker, Aerotecture CEO. To avoid making himself--and the burgeoning wind-power industry--look bad, they withdrew from the project. “They’ll try to [force] you into building a sculpture, he says, “but we don’t make sculptures.”
Instead, the company makes turbines and solar panels, often used in combination so “the high sun in the summer is compensating for the low wind” and vice versa in the winter, Becker says. So far, the five-year old company has more than 30 turbines in Chicago and its suburbs.
Meanwhile, across the country in Reno, the city government is behind the push for reducing the carbon footprint. There are two turbines atop City Hall, one at a wastewater plant, one at a park, and two more in downtown Reno. Four more are in the works.
The City Hall turbine won’t start spinning till at least September, but nearby residents have already praised the look of the blades, which are enshrined in a hoop to cut down noise. They’re rated at less than 35 decibels, says Jason Greddes, Reno’s environmental services administrator, which is quieter than a refrigerator’s hum.
The wind is blowing across the pond too. The three turbines atop London’s Strata skyscraper stand out because they fit in. It’s the first building to have the machines integrated in its structure. In a review in the Guardian, Jonathan Glancey writes  that the building has “the feel of an airship holding aloft the passenger cabins (or flats) below.” Others have chosen a simpler description: the Electric Razor.
Will urban wind power catch up? There are certainly enough customers, says Aerotecture’s Becker, but he worries wind power is misunderstood and too often associated with images of endless plains interrupted by swarms of looming towers. “We’re so different,” he says, “that we’re not well understood.”