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Making pylons prettier: the energy minister’s challenge

As pylons proliferate, a competition aims to find an aesthetically pleasing solution

Energy secretary Chris Huhne has unveiled the top six finalists from the Pylon Design Competition.
The competition was launched amid concerns over the visual impact of new overhead transmission lines on the landscape.

This has been caused by the need for the grid to accommodate a large number of new and dispersed power generation sources coming on line in the next decade. Huhne has stressed his belief that in building new infrastructure, good visual design should not be compromised.

250 entries

Run by RIBA for the Department for Energy and Climate Change and National Grid, the competition had 250 entries.

The finalists are ‘Silhouette’, by Ian Ritchie Architects and Jane Wernick Associates; T-Pylon by Bystrup Architecture, Design & Engineering; Y-Pylon by Knight Architects with Roughan & O’Donovan, and EBS International with MEGA; Flower Tower by Gustafson Porter with Atelier One, and Pfisterer; Plexus by AL-A with Arup; and Totem by New Town Studio with Structure Workshop.

Reviewing the designs one has to ask how many of them could claim to have the flexibility and durability of the traditional pylon designs adopted by the Central Electricity Board, as one of their first tasks in developing the National Grid in 1927. Those were adapted from an existing range of pylon designs with aesthetic input from Sir Reginald Blomfield. One of the first areas they were used was in central Scotland where the consultants were Kennedy and Donkin. The first testing facility for transmission towers was erected at this time by Painter Brothers, near Hereford, and in the ICE archives is a sketch of early testing activity.

Painters, later part of BICC, were also responsible for the Skylon at the Festival of Britain, perhaps the most iconic tower produced by structural engineers in the UK.

Eiffel tower

Interestingly, one of the pylon designs considered by CEB was that of Eiffel, and the success of the Eiffel Tower can be said to have ushered in the ‘tower’ as a structural form. In the UK it was soon followed by the Blackpool Tower (1893), with structural design by Richard Read (1852-1925), and the abandoned proposed Wembley tower, designed by Stewart and Baker of Forth Bridge fame. Eiffel and Baker were pioneers of wind testing.

Looking at the 2011 proposals some were anticipated by forms in use in the 1920s, although the lattice has been generally abandoned by the finalists. The exception, the lattice cylinder ‘Totem’ design, owes something to the revolutionary work of Vladimir Shukhov. Shukhov’s Moscow Radio Tower is well-known, but he designed hundreds of pylons, which still stand comparison with today’s entrants for innovation and aesthetics.

One suspects many plaudits from the public will go for the Plexus design, but my favourite is the Flower Tower.

The designers took nature as an inspiration and the final design looks a practical and aesthetically pleasing solution to the demands of the future grid.

  • To attend future events contact Ed Holmes at ed.holmes@raeng.org.uk

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