The power of design: Can pylons ever be beautiful?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A new contest hopes to find out, says Phil Boucher

In literary circles, Molly Bawn, by the Irish writer Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, enjoyed its heyday towards the end of the 19th century. Yet this little-known tale of a petulant Victorian girl continues to have an influence through Hungerford's phrase "beauty is in the eye of the beholder".

Through drafting this idiom, Hungerford – who wrote under the pseudonym "The Duchess" – has made it easier for every one of us to defiantly hold on to our subjective view of whatever holds our gaze, whether it be art, clothes, cars, furniture, houses or the opposite sex. In many ways it is the ultimate form of a linguistic checkmate within a discussion or argument.

Yet this personal conviction of beauty is never more contentious than when it comes to the environmental imprint of the UK's most divisive structure: the electricity pylon.

Since it was designed in 1927 by Sir Reginald Blomfield, the lattice pylon has invoked a mixture of hatred, loathing and affection. It has also inspired everyone from film-makers to artists, photographers and the poetry of John Betjeman, developing the same level of omnipresent cultural resonance as the red telephone box and the Routemaster bus. To some it is an icon of the British landscape; to many more it has, and always will be, little more than an eyesore – and that includes the professionals.

"In practical terms the design has always been extolled by engineers. But they don't say 'It's ugly, but...'. They just cleverly say 'it uses the minimum amount of material'," the architect Sir Nicholas Grimshaw says.

Yet this may be about to change. In an attempt to achieve the seemingly impossible feat of making the pylon pretty, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) have held an open competition to replace Blomfield's iconic latticework. This has resulted in a vast array of modern takes on the traditional pylon, using everything from composite materials to oxidised steel, variable heights, environmentally harmonious colours and subtle changes in texture to remove the existing visual clutter and push the pylon into the background.

A shortlist of six designs announced at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London includes such ideas as the sail-shaped Plexus pylon, which rises and falls in correspondence to the surrounding topography.

Another, called Silhouette, uses a combination of stainless steel and a hollow cone design to reflect the surrounding countryside and create the appearance of a black lance piercing the sky. Ingeniously, the steel coating makes the pylon entirely disappear from view at certain angles, so in some positions it literally produces no visually clutter whatsoever.

A further contender, called the Flower Tower, has drawn its inspiration from gull wings and flower stems to create a design that reflects nature's shapes through six identical blades of varying heights bundled together to form a stem or a trunk for the tower. Like all of the designs it is also far smaller than Blomfield's pre-war design, measuring just 2.5 metres at the base and 1.5 metres front to back.

"The thing we wanted was that it sat comfortably in the landscape and was very much part of the landscape," Mary Bowman, the Flower Tower designer, says. "The language of the tower was the language of flowers and plants, of wings of birds, that was the imagery that sat comfortably within a wider landscape," she continues. "We didn't see it as an isolated object in itself." A fellow shortlisted architect, Christopher Snow, adds: "When the original pylon was designed, electricity was something to be celebrated as a triumph and the original design bears this out. Our relationship with electricity now is something very different. It is something we need and want but is something we want to be more in the background. So the design has to be more visually sensitive to today."

Can a simple design change win over the pylons detractors? People have been campaigning against the metal towers since the first one was erected outside Edinburgh in 1928. As far back as 1929 such leading lights as Rudyard Kipling, John Maynard Keynes and Hilaire Belloc were attempting to halt a string of pylons from being located on the Sussex Downs.

Since then, more than 88,000 pylons have been built in the UK and very few have risen quietly. In recent weeks there has been fierce local opposition to the erection of pylons in such places as the Cambrian Mountains in Wales, north Somerset, the Kent Downs and Constable Country in Suffolk.

The National Grid estimates we need around 1,000 new pylons to carry electricity from remote, offshore wind farms to the hobs of the nation's kitchens, which also means this issue is going to become more contentious – not least because the UK needs to develop the equivalent of 20 nuclear power stations over the next decade and 50 by 2050.

The Energy Secretary Chris Huhne said at the launch: "Change on that kind of scale will not go unnoticed – and nor should it. We will have to own our energy future together and that's what this competition is all about. We want people to engage with the coming energy transformation."

Regardless of the design, it is the sheer concept of the pylon itself that sticks in some throats. Not least because the option of burying cables is always on the table, despite the seemingly prohibitive costs. Or, put another way, to many eyes the pylon is an unnecessary blight; to others it is an architectural facet of economic modernisation, in much the same way as canals and windmills were for previous eras. "Whether you wish to see electricity carried above ground by pylons or buried within the earth in cables there are environmental and economic consequences," Huhne says. "I believe the way we deliver energy should be as beautiful as it possibly can be. Just because it is necessary does not mean that it shouldn't be attractive."

The winner of the Riba competition will be announced at the end of October and it will then be considered for implementation by the National Grid. Should one of the shortlisted designs come into being, the UK will finally be able to wave goodbye to a design that was created in the same era as the Model T Ford and welcome a tower that includes every aspect of modern design, metallurgy and engineering.

More importantly, it will be an addition to the British landscape created with the concepts of environmental and visual harmony at its core. And surely everyone, regardless of how they view the pylon, can see the beauty in such an endeavour. "Our landscape is extraordinary, it's diverse and it's unique and we are rightly very protective of it," Amanda Levete, a shortlisted architect, says. "But pylons are a necessary part of our infrastructure and we have to be confident and find a way that the impact they have is entirely positive.... The infrastructure and the image of the pylons will actually affect our collective image of the landscape for generations."

The shortlisted designs for the Pylon for the Future display are open to the public at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 5 October. To view the designs online go to www.ribapylondesign.com/shortlist

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Arts and Entertainment
Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters performs at Suncorp Stadium on February 24, 2015 in Brisbane, Australia.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans had initially distanced himself from the possibility of taking the job

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
British author Matt Haig

books
Arts and Entertainment
Homeland star Damian Lewis is to play a British Secret Service agent in Susanna White's film adaptation of John le Carre's Our Kind of Traitor

Film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map
    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
    Paris Fashion Week

    Paris Fashion Week

    Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
    A year of the caliphate:

    Isis, a year of the caliphate

    Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
    Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

    Marks and Spencer

    Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
    'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

    'We haven't invaded France'

    Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
    Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

    Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

    The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
    7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

    Remembering 7/7 ten years on

    Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
    Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

    They’re here to help

    We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
    What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

    What exactly does 'one' mean?

    Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue