Infrastructure can be seen everywhere so it’s a shame it’s often so ugly. Let’s hope for some inspired entries in the energy department’s competition to update the UK’s pylons
When the Infrastructure Planning Commission is replaced in the new Localism Bill, we can still expect an interminable journey for every wind farm, railway, power line or energy-from-waste plant. Renewable Energy System’s five years to put a modest wind farm on Dorset farmland shows that we retain an ability to be hypocritical about tackling climate change on the one hand and preserving our back gardens on the other. It doesn’t help that infrastructure is often so ugly that it is only acceptable if it is invisible. “A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture … the term architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal,” said Nikolaus Pevsner in An Outline of European Architecture, 1943.
It doesn’t help that infrastructure is often so ugly that it is only acceptable if it is invisible
He might mean that “building”, a category in which I’d include infrastructure, is cast down into a sub-architectural drudge, to be pitied in its ugliness. But I prefer a more logical interpretation of his remark - there is no architecture unless you can first design a “building”.
Pevsner’s companion volume An Outline of Global Infrastructure is still waiting to be written, a victim of our neglect. I see the result out of the window of my train each day. Rude infrastructure is “building”, and little of it is “architecture”. Yet it is not occasionally glorious architecture that dominates our world, but infrastructure. Infrastructure consumes our resources and we have built a huge industry to provide it. But it is an industry long on conservatism, short on inspiration.
For an alternative take, look at the work of Ken Grange in his upcoming Making Britain Modern exhibition at the Design Museum. You can imagine him designing a crash barrier or station platform. Grange whittles away at every detail, every material, every component. He designs things of beauty, but the aesthetic comes out of the manufacturing process, not a style magazine.
In UK infrastructure we have a long list of offences to take into consideration - for example, our 40,000 railway bridges. At the start of my commute I use Dorking station, now home to a bloated King Kong of a bridge. Its function is to get wheelchairs and buggies across the tracks. Two lifts and an elevated link solved this. But then people could throw things onto the tracks, so the link needed to be enclosed. Now it sprouts windows, ventilation, lighting and becomes a motorway so that wheelchairs can pass each other. And for goodness sake give those lifts a lobby with stainless steel control panels. Bother! It’s politically unfair to those without wheels, so let’s add stairs even though they’ve used the tunnel underneath the tracks for 120 years. Higher ticket prices, taxes and a share of the world’s precious resources pay for this rubbish. But we aren’t finished yet, for it’s in the pretty Surrey Hills, so let’s cover the steel in brick to blend in with the local surroundings. The monstrous thing now attracts more wind than the Eiffel tower and has a stability system to die for. Stop the train, I want to get off and redesign the other 39,999 bridges!
Infrastructure consumes our resources and we have built a huge industry to provide it. But it is an industry long on conservatism, short on inspiration
Well, now we have a chance to redesign a classic piece of infrastructure grot. The Department of Energy and Climate Change has just run a competition for the design of electricity pylons - the UK has 88,000. At 50m tall, the “current” (no pun) design dates from 1927. Why there has never been a serious update I don’t know - perhaps it’s survival of the cheapest. But now that our future renewable energy will be generated so far from our cities, we’ll have more pylons marching through our landscape, and not even the nimbys will pay more for electricity just to bury the cables on someone else’s patch.
The competition closed last week, but, as a member of the jury, I expect a bunch of entries that are essentially sculpture, some that are big industrialised products, some no doubt lovely to look at. But I’d hope to see at least some integrated entries, beyond Pevsner’s “building”, using the full range of aesthetic skill across all the senses, weaving as one across the landscape. The shortlist will be revealed at the end of this month.
And at least if Ken Grange can’t bear the outcome, he already has his escape route planned: in his hall he’s made himself a coffin-shaped bookcase that just needs the shelves taken out when he dies. He told me he’d thought of making one for his wife too, but wants to live a long and happy life.
Chris Wise is director of Expedition Engineering