ARTS : Our friends electric
Though it has loomed large in our landscape since the 1930s, the much-maligned L12 electricity pylon is finally being phased out. Jonathan Glancey bids a fond farewell to a British design classic
Sunday 12 November 1995
The standard L12 pylon, brought to a state of steely perfection in the early Fifties by National Grid engineers, is, whatever one thinks of it, an integral part of our landscape. Currently, there are 25,000 of the giants. To replace them is a tricky business, not least because it costs 15 times as much to bury electricity cables the necessary five feet underground as it does to suspend them from pylons.
The process will be speeded up in areas of outstanding beauty, although it will be at least 70 years before the pylon finally disappears. When it does, will anyone mourn the passing of this Brobdingnagian symbol of industrialisation?
For the pylon, one-time harbinger of electric light, warmth and the final conquest of nature, is now generally considered a menace. The question of visual pollution aside, pylons are blamed for all sorts of modern ills. Live too near one and, so the myth goes, dread conditions and diseases will follow. If unproved, these are none the less common concerns among those who live in the crackling path of the National Grid. Yet, despite our fears, pylons do have a special beauty. A brute, industrial beauty, but beauty even so.
Looked at from a purely abstract perspective, regiments of steel pylons marching across hills and dales can be a stirring sight. There is something almost sublime in the scale and rhythm of these giants as they dis-appear into apparently infinite vistas; something thrilling in watching them set out from coastal power stations and forge an unchallenged line across everything that stands in their way - sand dunes, pastures, sheep, farmsteads, arterial roads, suburban cul-de-sacs.
This is, of course, the same curious and guilty buzz that one gets from looking at 60-year-old posters celebrating the electrification of the Soviet Union: what trust there once was in all-conquering, nature-defying technology. Now it is fashionable (rightly so, in many instances) to deride industrialism and all its ways. Electricity pylons, say the conservation fundamentalists, are Britain's most overt symbols of the abuse of energy. Here are these monsters trampling over our fields and homes to bring Cilla Black and the Power Rangers into our living room, to keep rissoles deep- frozen, to help set blue-rinsed hair and to let children play Mortal Kombat.
What might seem odd to those who find pylons not only ugly but anathema, is that once upon a time a very serious effort was made to make them look beautiful.
In the early Thirties, the electricity authorities held a competition for the design of a standard pylon. This was won by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960), architect not only of Liverpool Cathedral, but also of such wonders of the industrial age as Battersea and Bankside power stations, Waterloo Bridge, and the delightful red telephone kiosks that were once as inescapable a part of the British landscape as the pylon itself.
The choice of Scott was an inspired one, as, like almost no other architect of his time, he was able to reconcile brute industrial functions with graceful classical forms. His lovely telephone booths were a clever play on the incomparable designs of Sir John Soane - architect of the Bank of England (since largely demolished), the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and his own justly famous museum and home in London's Lincoln's Inn Fields - and for many years, the public made its telephone calls in updated classical splendour.
Scott shaped his magnificent Gothic cathedral at Liverpool with the same guiding spirit and intelligence. Here he fused the aesthetic of the medieval cathedral with that of the new power stations (that fuelled the pylons that drove the public telephone network). And the power stations he designed were cathedrals of electric power. His pylon was a tall lattice-work, its dimensions also based on classical ratios and proportions. From its battered (or tapering) tower, broad, tapered arms stretched out beneath which the cables were slung,
Even the name chosen for these harbingers of electricity was classical. Pylon is a direct transliteration of the ancient Greek "pulon", meaning "gateway". Scott's pylons were gateways into the bright new age of wireless, pay-phone and trolleybus, and contemporary observers (poets like Auden, artists like Eric Gill) admired them openly.
The poetic logic of Auden, Gill and gang was impeccable. Given that pylons were an inevitable feature of the new industrial landscape, it was only right that they should be shaped by the best designers of the age and respected for their elemental beauty. Which they were, along with the new power stations, the latest aircraft, racing cars, streamlined locomotives and Bauhaus-inspired architecture.
Times have changed, and our pylons have become hate-objects. Last year the National Grid Company considered the possibility of adopting a new design of pylon popular in France and elsewhere. But, this would simply mean the substitution of the familiar Scott-derived steel lattice with a 6ft-diameter concrete mast. It would, said the company, be no improvement.
Nor, it thought, would it help to paint existing pylons a different colour. They are painted grey, uniformly so, because grey is the colour that least imposes on the British landscape and that blends best with the normal colour of our watery skies. So the cables win the day.
People will still cheer when a pylon is replaced by underground cables - yet who can walk or cycle under the cat's cradle of high-voltage lines hanging between Scott's 156ft-high towers without being aware of the stupendous and lethal power of the electric current coursing overhead? We cannot see it, but we can hear it singing in those sinister overhead cables. And we are aware of the enormity of its power - both in terms of voltage and in the ways it shapes our lives - because of the monumentality of pylons. !
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