Pylons of Great Britain Lukas Barry, Alastair Parvin, Tom Kangro 09/10/11 10.13
PYLONS OF GREAT BRITAIN
The end of one-size-fits-all infrastructure.
The challenge of designing a pylon for the 21st century is, in some sense, a trick question. Or rather, it predicates an answer for which there is no clear question. Behind the challenge there lies, nonetheless, an interesting problem. As the UK National Grid faces its transformation over the next few decades of energy revolution, the grid itself will need to be renewed and expanded, with, inevitably, new lines being installed. Many of these will run across rural landscapes. The response is easy to predict: expect protests, local campaigns and acrimonious planning disputes. The existing design of the UK electricity pylon may be deeply-loved by some, but it is deeply reviled by many more. It articulates the contradiction presented by that part of us which protests against a 'blot' upon rural skylines even as we insist upon resilient energy supply, or campagin against the installation of telecommunications masts near our homes, moments before complaining that we can't get a decent signal on our mobile phone.
It is an intractable problem, and understandably perhaps, the Energy Secretary and the National Grid's have attempted to tackle it through design. The logic goes something along these lines:
1. People think pylons are ugly.
2. Therefore we need to make them less ugly.
Q. Who is good at making things look less ugly?
Putting aside this painfully reductive view of architecture's role (the persistent, destructive myth that design is concerned only with the cosmetic appearance of physical objects), it is unlikely to succeed even as a strategic response to the dilemma. It is difficult to imagine that a cosmetic makeover alone will be capable of shifting popular perception, however beautifully it might be executed. Firstly, because citizens are not so stupid that they do not realise that pylons are devices deployed for reasons of economy: being far cheaper than burying power lines underground, and secondly, because health concerns about pylons will always factor equally with aesthetic ones.
Therein lies one trick in the question, but there is another. The problem with introducing a “new” design for the pylon (even one which is spectacularly beautiful as a sculptural object) is that almost immediately all other pylons will become “the old one”, rendering them either even more unpopular, or possibly, the opposite: suddenly popular – as a sense of nostalgia adds tint to the lenses through which they are viewed.
So the question 'what does the pylon of the future look like?' is one with no correct answers. To really engage with the root of the National Grid's dilemma, we need to change the rules. The proposal made here is based on two basic principles:
Principle #1: Mass-specialisation
If we reflect upon the technologies which are radically re-shaping design and manufacturing - in particular open, parametric design, and automated manufacturing – we are now able to recognise that the era in which the need for efficiency forced us towards mass-produced, indifferent to their environment, was only a short-term constraint. The pylon of the 21st century will not be a straightforward replacement for the universal pylon of the 20th, but rather a liberation from the monotony of ‘one-size-fits-all’ design. No two places are the same – there is no longer any reason why any two pylons need to be the same.
We now have the capacity, without any great loss in efficiency or economy, to allow functional and cultural specificity on a massive-scale. It is, in effect, a form of bio-mimicry, wherein each solution can be thought of a ‘species’. Like Darwin’s Galapagos finches, each species evolves to be best suited to its local environment, and so becomes embedded in local climates, topographies, eco-systems and cultures. Effectively, the result would be to allow the British pylon to develop local and regional 'accents'.
Principle #2: Infrastructure as Cultural heritage
If you buy a souvenir in Paris, it is more than probable it will depict the Eiffel tower. In New York: the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. In London however, the vast majority of souvenirs - trinketed fragments of cultural identity - depict not individual buildings, but infrastructure: red post boxes, red-buses, tube maps, and the red K6 telephone box.
Why should this be any less true in rural landscapes? Could pylons become just as much a reflection of cultural identity, such that visitors would be able to ‘see’ a cultural map of Britain as they drive from one county to another, or walk from one village to the next? Could ‘pylon-spotting’ become a national pastime?
What is proposed therefore is not a singular design for the pylon, but rather a generative system; a piece of open, parametric software which allows the distinctive lattice pylon to 'evolve' to its local environment. In each case, a unique structural topology is generated, which is articulated in a structural system of nodes and tubular steel connectors. These parts can be manufactured, shipped and assembled with the same efficiency (but far greater effectiveness) as a universal solution, but allows structural and programmatic mutations: pylons as landmarks, follies, agricultural hardware, secret bluetooth tags... In essex, one wildlife conservation group co-design a pylon incorporating a bat habitat. Near the M5 motorway, a parish council commission an artist, who fits fluorescent strip lights to the pylon structure. Unwired, the bulbs cast an eerie glow across the motorway as the magnetic field around the power lines activates the mercury vapour in the tubes. Guidebooks note that they are referred to locally as the 'ghost pylons'.
The question of ugliness? Not solved, but somehow less important than it previously seemed.
'Pylons of Great Britain' was an entry to the 2011 Pylon design competition, organised by the National Grid and the Royal Institution of British Architects (RIBA). It was not selected by the judges. The text and images in this article are based on excerpts from the submitted proposal. The successful entries can be viewed here.
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