The power of design: Can pylons ever be beautiful?

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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

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