Out with the old, in with the new seems to be the concept in several European countries, with competitions being launched to replace the humdrum, purely functional power pylons with modern monuments of design.
But the pylons cannot just be items of beauty that can be introduced into the landscape – they must also comply with structural requirements and modern electricity needs. Furthermore, visual impact on surrounding landscapes must be taken into account, especially considering that many renewable energy facilities are built in countryside areas that have not yet been affected by power lines.
One approach is to go all out and make an architectural statement. A 2008 competition by Iceland’s transmission grid operator Landsnet produced stunning designs of giants carrying electricity through the mountain valley, for example. The proposal by American architecture firm Choi + Shine was highly commended and could become a reality in the near future. The materials and construction methods may not differ much from the current standard, but its colour – white, instead of the traditional grey – is designed to set a stark contrast to the volcanic landscape, rather than disappear into it.
This approach was not taken in the Pylon Design Competition run by the UK’s National Grid in 2011. Here, the standout winner was the T-Pylon by Danish firm Bystrup (see photo right). President of the Royal Institute for British Architects at the time Ruth Reed was a member of the jury: “While other proposals were visually stunning, they were often very tall, used lots of materials or were extremely busy in design. By contrast, the T-Pylon sits low and can be rolled out in the hundreds without overly impacting visually sensitive landscape in the same way as other large and striking designs would.”
In May 2015, the first T-pylon was erected at an electrician’s training site in Nottinghamshire, England. It is the UK’s first pylon that does not follow the old lattice design first erected near Edinburgh in 1928. As a vote of confidence in the new designs, the communities likely to be affected by new power lines connecting Bridgewater with Hinkley C substation in the West of England have requested the T-Pylon be used wherever underground lines are not possible. For Reed, who took part in many architectural design competitions during her presidency, it is one of the most satisfying judging experiences she has had. “Instead of focusing on a single building or areal we made a decision that would affect the whole country. After all, pylons are everywhere.”