Beyond Buildings


Transmission Pylons: The Brits Go for Almost Nothing

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Knight Architects / Roughan & O’Donovan / ESB International in association with MEG. Courtesy: RIBA


Certain things in our landscape we try not to notice. Actually, most things that humans have made we try to ignore, as the totality of buildings, roads and other stuff we have strewn over this planet is astonishingly ugly. What is worse is to encounter a part of that sprawl when you think you are far away, out in what remains of nature. Some of the largest such visual pollutants are power transmission lines and their pylons, which tower over our heads as they march through the landscape.


In England, architects have decided to try to do something about this. Their professional organization, the RIBA, which regularly makes ours look stodgy and unimaginative (and which, in the service of full disclosure, made me an Honorary Member a few years ago), has just announced the results of a competition to redesign those pylons. As they organized this event together with the National Grid, which owns and maintains those far-flung fragments of infrastructure across the United Kingdom, there is some hope that the ideas might actually lead to a built result, although the aim is only, according to the brief, “to help initiate and inform this debate through the vehicle of design and to explore the potential for a new generation of pylon within our landscapes.”


The six shortlisted designs are now online, and anybody can voice their opinions. They are all examples of minimalism, as if the designers and juries were admitting from the get-go that the less you see of these things the better. I was surprised that nobody in the almost 300 entrants proposed making the pylons go away altogether, either by burying them or coating them in mirrors—or perhaps through a Harry Potterian charm.


Ian Ritchie Architects, Jane Wernick Associates and Ann Christopher, Sculptor. Courtesy: RIBA


The most elegantly minimal of all is the entry by one of the most restrained of all British architects, Ian Ritchie. His “Silhouette” is a knife-blade of a tower whose tapering form almost makes the pylon into a piece of sculpture, though you wish they would let a real sculptor loose on it to fine-tune the form.




Bystrup – Architecture, Design & Engineering. Courtesy: RIBA


Equally minimal, though somewhat more pedestrian, is the entry “T-Pylon,” by Bystrup, a Danish design and engineering firm. It offered several other alternatives in the competition, including an even more minimal one that the jury did not select. The firm seems to make a business out of making infrastructure elegant, and you would think they might actually be up to the job.


Gustafson Porter with Atelier One and Pfisterer. Courtesy: RIBA


If you really want something expressive, though landscape firm Gustafson Porter have the thing for you: its “Flower Tower” opens up from step to petals in a manner that seems completely natural and fluid, though it leaves the whole a bit massive.


AL_A & Arup. Courtesy: RIBA


Arup strut their engineering stuff with a design that is changeable: they claim that the curving members use cutting-edge technology so that they can be easily configured to different topographic conditions, although it is difficult to see how the curves and swerves relate to the non-geometries of the non-human-made landscape.


There were actually a few of the entries the jury did not select that I thought were really quite wonderful, including a fiddlehead fern proposal by Friend & Co. and a grandly asymmetrical beehive design by Colin Yip.


New Town Studio Engineer: Structure Workshop. Courtesy: RIBA


The winner, who will be announced next month, will receive the lion’s share of a 10,000 GBP prize, and will be strengthened in the idea that that firm proposed something viable and beautiful. It would be wonderful if we had such a competition here, though I must say that my reaction to all of the designs remains that no matter how beautiful these objects might be, if they were ever constructed, I still would wish they were not there.



Comments (2 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 3:36 PM Friday, October 07, 2011

    Dear fellows, the only solution is to put these infrastructure under ground, beter for helth (radiation of electric field) and better for aestetic.

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  • Posted by: Aryze Developments | Time: 2:35 PM Tuesday, September 27, 2011

    This definitely adds a certain amount of aesthetic appeal to an landscape object that would otherwise be an eyesore. I'd like to see this applied in Canada.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.