Designs for a 21st Century Pylon

A RIBA, National Grid and Department of Energy and Climate change funded competition to design a 21st century Pylon has been won by Danish architects Bystrup with their understated ‘T-Pylon’.

‘T-Pylon’ the winning design by Danish architects Bystrup

The Pylon Design Competition launched in May this year and the six short-listed designs were exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in September as part of the 2011 London Design Festival.

The short-listed models on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum presented viewers with the scale of the design problem

Our increasing appetite for energy is resulting in the need for more pylons and underground cables. This makes sense, however, questions surrounding the need for a new pylon design were left unanswered in the exhibition, only now with the announcement of the winner, and the publication of a press release have these questions been answered, albeit vaguely.

In 1993 the Dutch graphic designer Wim Crouwel wrote: ‘These discreet constructions – neither too much or too little – with arms that elegantly support the cables and lead onwards towards the horizon, appear to determine precisely the huge movements as if they were a choreography for electricity’.

Crouwel’s commentary relates to existing variations based on the original 1928 pylon design by the American Milliken Brothers, overseen by the British architect Sir Reginald Blomfield. Equally Crouwel’s description can be applied to Bystrup’s winning design, and it appears that one Modernist solution has been reconfigured into another Modernist solution.

Ironically the V&A is currently showing Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970 to 1990, could it be argued that the Pylon Design Competition is re-presenting our post- postmodern culture? T-Pylon is a mere restyling of form containing the essence of the original, this essence being a basic geometric shape – the triangle – which provides continuity between the steel lattice-work of the Blomfield variations we currently live with and the T-Pylon prototype.

To complicate matters further, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne has thrown in some adjectives that call into question the clarity of the competition brief, he says:

“This is an innovative design which is simple, classical and practical. Its ingenious structure also means that it will be much shorter and smaller than existing pylons and therefore less intrusive. This competition has been a great success in bringing forward new and creative approaches to a pylon model which has not changed since the 1920s.

We are going to need a lot more pylons over the next few years to connect new energy to our homes and businesses and it is important that we do this is in the most beautiful way possible.”

Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne at the V&A with the winning T-Pylon maquette

The use of the words: innovative; simple; classical; practical; ingenious and beautiful are hazardous as they are open to interpretation. If the design objectives had simply asked for the structures to have less impact on the environment or use less material in their construction, we would have solid criteria on which to judge, aesthetics are problematic as one persons likes are another’s dislike.

This subjective dilemma is exemplified by the existence of the subcultural Pylon Appreciation Society who’s members are cheerleaders for Blomfields varients. And let’s not forget the work of German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher who’s photographic typologies of industrial buildings and structures provoke us into questioning our critical faculties in determining what is aesthetically pleasing.

In fact the competition is a reminder of a debate that raged in the graphic design profession after the publication of Steven Heller’s 1993 article The Cult of the Ugly, who’s subtitle reads: “Designers used to stand for beauty and order. Now beauty is passé and ugliness is smart. How did we get here and is there any way out?”. The ability to define and objectively articulate what makes a design visually appealing is determined by variables that warrant a critical vocabulary other than employing the ugly, beautiful dichotomy.

There’s an aggravating postmodern undercurrent to this modernist value-laden competition, where imposing man-made structures in the natural environment has political and social ramifications. T-Pylon is a step in the right direction (given that the designers were asked to ground themselves in reality), but is it an innovative or a radical departure from what we have now? Not really.

The spirit of this consciousness-raising competition can be found in the the plurality of crowning a winner: “As a result of this contest National Grid will now work with Bystrup to develop their T-Pylon design further. National Grid have also said they want to do further work with Ian Ritchie Associates on their Silhouette design, and New Town Studio’s Totem design. It appears that the judging panel are also not convinced the winning solution – at this stage – is necessarily the right solution.

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