By Sarah Gibson, GILLESPIES LLP
As a landscape architect involved in routeing high voltage overhead electricity lines for more years than I care to remember, I have long felt that pylon design in the UK should be reviewed in light of development in mainland Europe where more contemporary, some might even say funky, designs criss-cross some of the most beautiful and pristine landscapes.
European designers and engineers seem to be positively encouraged to be more imaginative and ambitious in their design aspirations than back here in the UK. So I was very pleased to hear about the design competition being run by the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and National Grid. My initial response back in 2011 when the competition was announced was great, but given that the visual impact of a pylon arises both from its design but also from its relationship with the landscape in which it is located, why weren’t landscape architects better represented on the judging panel? OK, moan over!
Faced with apprehension that the winning design might be an ‘iconic architectural statement’ – perhaps attractive and ground breaking in its own right, but not necessarily capable of preserving the beauty of the British countryside – I waited with baited breath.
A quick poll of colleagues in the office when the short-listed results were announced, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not reach unanimous conclusion. Both Bystrup’s T-pylon and the Silhouette received equal support. Both appeared to be a radical departure from the traditional lattice pylon and were simple and relatively unobtrusive in design. In the end, the decision to develop the T-pylon was supported by the judging panel and, pleasingly has received favourable press coverage.
It is sometimes said that we in the UK are a traditional bunch and conservative (with a small c!). Perhaps that is why we have 88,000 lattice pylons in this country – a design which is tried and tested for nearly a century that has been refined over time with seemingly minimal change. National Grid’s move to develop a new pylon design is a long overdue step in the right direction. After all, as we all know, pylons in the landscape evoke strong feeling and rarely good ones. A new pylon design won’t dispel these views but will hopefully lessen them.
But it’s not always been this way. Believe it or not, in the 1930s, when pylons first started striding across our countryside, so popular was the imagery conjured by sleek grey steel and the modern technology it represented, that it inspired a school of poetry. Even today, its boxy geometric, lattice structure is still a thing of architectural beauty for some photographers and members of the Pylon Appreciation Society. Pylons have even been immortalised in film, including the 1998 British film ‘Among Giants’. Here the protagonists Rachel Griffiths and the late Pete Postlethwaite are pylon painters who find love among the high-voltage transmission wires in Yorkshire – perhaps unthinkable today given the concerns sometimes expressed where new high voltage connections are needed!
Anyway I digress, so back to the T-pylon and perhaps a new pylon appreciation society. As a landscape practitioner what’s my view?
In recent consultations on a National Grid project we were able to show people visualisations of the T-pylon. The consensus view was that, whilst people would still prefer the connection to be placed underground, the T-pylon was an improvement on the traditional design because it was smaller, attractive and less urban in appearance. I found this very encouraging.
The central challenge of the pylon design competition was to develop a design which was not only functional and sustainable, but also more capable of being integrated into the landscape. For the following reasons, I think the T-pylon can achieve this:
- At circa 35m, it is at least 15m shorter than a standard 400,000 V lattice pylon, although at least 10m wider (when measured to the outer edges of the diamond).
- The geometric simplicity of the monopole and single suspension arm is architecturally elegant and the introduction of a crossarm with a slight uplift or ‘smile’ makes the structure more appealing.
- The T shape of the pylon is striking and will undoubtedly become the iconic symbol of the new pylon family.
Essentially, I think that the simple and elegant appearance of the T-pylon offers a fantastic opportunity to break away from the traditional and create a new generation of overhead lines which are more sympathetic to the UK’s diverse countryside. The possibilities for using different finishes (galvanised steel, Corten steel and a variety of paint colours) offer potential for the new pylon family to blend into a variety of landscapes. Of course there are likely to be circumstances where, in landscape and visual terms, using a conventional lattice pylon may be more appropriate – for instance where a new line will parallel an existing lattice line, or where a short new section of overhead line is needed in an area which predominantly has lattice lines already.
The challenge over the coming months is to reassure the public that National Grid is committed to developing and offering the T-pylon as an option alongside existing lattice pylon designs and other technologies (e.g. cables) to connect new low carbon generation.