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How to turn boring pylons into a fabulous architectural narrative

Ian Martin considers what measures to take against the Chinese…

Monday. The brief has arrived for yet another government design competition. There’s a covering note from the energy secretary and, I must say, the tone is very snippy.

‘This country needs new, dynamic, elegant pylons for a new kind of electricity. Green electricity. You may ask: what will make this electricity ‘green’?

‘Well, it will be travelling through some pretty bloody scenic countryside for a start!

‘So shut up, I am a haughty millionaire, I don’t need this rubbish job and I certainly don’t need your carping bullshit about how fast energy policy went in the past, or who was in the driving seat…’

It’s not clear what he and the National Grid are after. Do they want this new wave of pylons to be architecturally reticent, so we hardly notice them? Or architecturally interesting, so we gasp in admiration? Ah, the answer’s on page 17: both.

This is what I call a ‘three pint’ problem, so I adjourn to the pub with my sketchbook and a copy of CPRE Bach’s The Complete Pylonopedia.

Tuesday. Oh dear. The nutty conservationists are mounting an oppositional campaign.

They want 20th Century pylons recognised as historic monuments. The energy secretary has announced a ‘tetchy listening period’ to absorb all points of view. Now what to do?

Wednesday. Cracked it. Each run of pylons to be imagined as an outdoor museum, an architectural journey. So instead of having boring identical pylons lined up like Old Testament patriarchs across the landscape, an ANTHOLOGY of pylon design.

At the start of our journey, a giant tree. Rudimentary pylons succeed it. Oh look, there’s an ancient Egyptian pylon with twin tapering corniced towers flanking a ceremonial gateway, then hazy for a while, then some Edwardian pylons, 1920s ‘flapper pylons’, wartime camouflaged pylons, Utility pylons, effete ’60s pylons on spindly legs etc, all the way up to the avant-garde Pylon of Today, which looks like a flap in the air, or a twig, or a smoke ring, or a tree.

Thursday. To the Royal Institute for the Protection of British Architects. An extraordinary meeting of the cross-departmental Rapid Response Unit.

The RIPBA’s under pressure to react firmly to the arrest of Ai Weiwei. The Bird’s Nest Stadium guy. The ‘mind your step on those sunflower seeds in the Tate’ guy. The artist and activist.

Also ‘architect’ – though, NB, nobody is entirely sure he’s up to date with his CPD points. He’s being detained on some trumped-up ‘economic crime’ bollocks in his homeland.

Yeah, CHINA. Whose embassy faces the institute’s own mentholated rookery in Portland Place. Obviously the RIPBA is calling for Ai’s release. That’s basic. But there are now two schools of thought within the profession.

One is to condemn ‘China’ in general for its repressive brutality, through protest. Ros, a hyperactive intern, is over by the balcony. ‘Couldn’t we, you know, get a big like projector or something, point it out of this window? Totally cover the Chinese embassy facade with a, whatever, powerful visual message? Like a massive shot of his face and a slogan. “Why oh why, something something, Ai Weiwei”. Bit crass. What about…’

‘Or!’ shouts Terry, from Business Development. ‘Or! We could just shut the fuck up about China, yes? We’ve got loads of members working there. They won’t thank us for queering their pitch.

‘How can we charge in now and start telling the Chinese which artists they can imprison or execute? It’s a free world, yes? I have to say, the Chinese officials and clients we’ve met over the years have been absolutely charming. Proper banquets, nice hotels. Last time I led an RIPBA delegation there you could order sweet and sour panda, ROOM SERVICE.’

There’s a bitter and protracted argument all the way through lunch, with sporadic sandwich-throwing.

As usual it’s left to the fragrant Daphne Spinoza, head of everything except subscriptions, to find an acceptable compromise. To wit, the RIPBA will push for an amendment to Bye-Law 1.01 of the International Architects’ Client Code, adding (*and human rights) to
‘…endeavour at all times to put design quality (*) at the heart of the procurement process’.

Friday. National Grid love my pylon saga, but ‘everything’s a little too visible’.

Saturday. Resubmit, casting all pylons in ‘tough translucent material’.

Sunday. Ah, the recliner. A visible means of support.

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