Many consider pylons to be eyesores, but they are set for a makeover via a competition to rethink their design. However, Hugh Pearman says bettering their form will be an uphill task
The Suffolk landscape was looking lovely. The sun had come out after a spell of rain. The countryside rolled its fields, woods and heathland towards the shining shingly coast. And, marching across this sylvan scene, were twin rows of overhead power lines carried by the familiar latticework pylons. Everything was just perfect.
The power lines were there for a very good reason: the existence nearby of the Sizewell B nuclear power station, newest and by some distance the best-looking of all our (mostly now decommissioned) nuclear generating sets, with its enormous white dome glimmering on the horizon like a rising moon. But I’m aware that for many people pylons are eyesores. They are to be regretted. No new ones should be built. Existing lines should be cabled underground.
In fact, most of us don’t normally really notice them, so familiar are they. Our lines of vision bend round them to focus on the things we really want to see. True, if you were looking for a picnic spot, you would not choose one directly beneath a power line, in case it cooked your brain.
However, I’ve been forcing myself to look long and hard at electricity pylons. The reason is that a design competition has been launched by the Department of Energy with the National Grid and the Royal Institute of British Architects. It’s been decided that, since we need lots more power lines to connect up all the windfarms everywhere and since it is prohibitively costly to bury them, we need a new pylon design.
I’ve got nothing against the competition it’s a rare example that is open to designers, engineers and architects alike, including students from all three disciplines. Who knows, it might just bring forth a wonder. My problem is this: the existing ones are so incredibly good.
In the Twitter conversations I took part in on the day the competition was announced, the best comment was by design journalist Will Wiles, who said, ’I don’t want to sound all reactionary about pylons, but what other bit of infrastructure design from 1927 has aged so well?’
I agree. These things are an amazingly enduring piece of product design. The original version was selected by an eminent British architect, Sir Reginald Blomfield, from a design submitted by an American-owned engineering company, Milliken Bros. Blomfield’s contribution was little more than attaching the Neo-Classical term ’pylon’ (an ancient gate-tower) to an object that was previously nameless. He saw it was good, and in a way pure. Others have seen them as giants striding across the landscape they have humanoid proportions even if they are both four-legged and multi-armed.
Their latticework structure is strong, light, offers little wind resistance, but is just sufficiently over-engineered to mean that the failure of any one component is not catastrophic if a metal strut snaps, others take up the load. Rival single-tube designs are all or nothing: if a tubular arm breaks, that’s it. The originals are easy to maintain because engineers can stand on them as they carry out the work. The design has proved to be supremely adaptable, and can be scaled up or down easily.
So as I gazed out across the Suffolk countryside, and saw these stately rows of 1920s designs going quietly about their business, I thought: they’re good. They have been in continuous production for 84 years. Brave the designers who think they can do better. Anyone out there feeling lucky?
Hugh Pearman is a design and architecture critic who can’t pretend writing is anything like as difficult as designing