Are electricity pylons really such a blot on the landscape? | Oliver Wainwright

There is plenty to appreciate about these lattice-work leviathans, but the National Grid is bowing to pressure to bury them instead

“Encase your legs in nylons, Bestride your hills with pylons, O age without a soul,” moaned John Betjeman in 1966, railing against the twin evils of the modern age as he saw them: tights and electricity transmission towers.

While the Campaign to Protect Rural England might not share his distaste for synthetic stockings, it has kept alive his fight against the hated pylon, exerting a level of pressure that has finally seen the National Grid cave in. This week it announced that it will spend half a billion pounds on burying the “biggest and ugliest” of the country’s pylon network – paid for by a rise in electricity bills.

But before they start digging mass graves for our spindly steel sentinels, which have marched so tirelessly across the country for almost 90 years, it might be worth considering whether they are such a blot on the landscape after all.

Since the first pylon was erected outside Edinburgh in 1928, these skeletal giants have received a tirade of abuse, first led by Rudyard Kipling, Hilaire Belloc and John Maynard Keynes in a furious letter to the Times. Such opponents were dismissed as “impractical aesthetes” by the electricity board, missing the point that the pylon was – and continues to be – a model of lean structural design and proportion, punctuating the landscape like slightly sinister church spires of the electrical age.

The original design, which has only been slightly modified over the years, was developed by the American Milliken Bros, under the guidance of the fiercely anti-modern architect Sir Reginald Blomfield. With lofty aspirations for his national network-monument, he christened the transmission mast with the same term, pylon, used to describe the stately tapering gateways to Egyptian temples.

Since then, Blomfield’s majestic fleet has grown to 90,000 strong, striding across fields and dales carrying their crackling and humming load, becoming as much a part of the artificial rural landscape as hay bales and farm sheds, cattle grids and dry-stone walls. Like a spider’s web, or the rigging of a galleon, the pylon has a rigorous logic, governed by its utilitarian economy of means. It has become part of our cultural landscape, alongside other icons of 1930s public sector design like Giles Gilbert Scott’s K6 telephone kiosks and the double-decker bus, from an age that bridged classicism and modernity.

These wiry knights of the National Grid have even inspired (pretty dreadful) poetry by British modernists Cecil Day-Lewis and Stephen Spender, the latter of whom panted longingly: “Pylons, those pillars / Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret.”

There is also a Pylon Appreciation Society (membership a steal at £15) and a dedicated Pylon of the Month blog, while architect Alastair Parvin has drawn up a loving taxonomy showing quite how adaptable these latticework leviathans can be, displaying regional variation of the species across the country.

A recent architectural competition to redesign the pylon, attracting entries from such luminaries as Amanda Levete and Ian Ritchie, revealed quite how elegant Blomfield’s version remains. The shortlisted designs were mostly clumsy hulks of white-painted steel, looking like oversized sanitary equipment or bits that had fallen off a Calatrava bridge.

And what’s the alternative? The process of banishing power lines below ground involves digging a 50 metre-wide trench 2 metres deep to accommodate the six cables that each pylon carries, leaving ragged scars across the landscape – at a cost of £7m per pylon. If this countryside cleansing scheme was extended to the whole network, it would cost more than £630bn – not far off the UK’s entire annual public spending budget. So save your money, National Grid, ignore the impractical aesthetes, and learn to appreciate your noble army of six-armed soldiers.


Oliver Wainwright

The GuardianTramp

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