In a hypothetical glamour parade of civil infrastructure one imagines that electricity pylons would score fairly low down the list, probably slightly below gas holders and flyovers. Yet the National Grid and RIBA’s recently announced competition to redesign this most derided and ubiquitous of British landmarks might well herald the dawn of a new era. Although the winning design will only be offered as an option for future pylons and will not replace existing ones, it could well unleash the biggest visual transformation of Britain’s countryside since the introduction of motorways in the late 1950s.
The link between electricity pylons and architecture is not as unusual as you might think. The current steel lattice tower ‘Christmas Tree’ design was the brainchild of Edwardian society architect Sir Reginald Blomfield, who is more commonly associated with prestigious commissions such as the rebuilding of Nash’s facades at London’s Regent Street Quadrant and Piccadilly Circus.
Since they first appeared in 1927, Blomfield’s 50m high “industrial soldiers” have now become an iconic and indelible part of the British urban and rural landscape. Along with Giles Gilbert Scott’s famous ‘K6’ red telephone box, they are arguably the most instantly recognisable examples of British standardised architecture of the 20th century.
Yet their notoriety is not a consequence of their appearance, which has frequently found itself the subject of intense ridicule and disdain, particularly in more beautiful or remote areas. The pylons are iconic because of what they represent, namely, the nature of our relationship with the environment and the relentless industrialisation and urbanisation of British society.
Despite their obtrusive scale, electricity pylons also retain a surreal and nomadic quality, as the clandestine army of pylon enthusiasts, momentarily unveiled as a result of this competition, will readily attest. Their homogenous form and repetitive layout defies the organic aesthetics of rural landscapes and creates an improbable juxtaposition that remains both controversial and compelling. In days gone by, previous products of industrialisation, such as windmills and lighthouses, were also considered blots on the landscape. Yet now, they are perceived as romantic relics from a bygone pre-industrialised age.
One hopes all these elements will be explored in the submitted designs. But the competition’s most powerful impact may not be on energy but on architecture. For a discipline that often seems so detached from people’s everyday lives, pylons are a potent reminder that architecture is in fact all around us, from the houses that shelter to us to the electricity that powers our kettles. If this competition helps increase awareness of the essential role architecture and design has to play in shaping our natural as well as urban environment then this can only be a good thing.