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Martin Pawley: meaning in aerials

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Years ago, when I used to write for the Guardian, I received a telephone call asking me to write a piece about 'this awful rash of satellite dishes blighting the country'. I did as I was asked, making light of the problem on the grounds that it was transient and sooner or later cable tv would sweep it away. The caller was not satisfied. He had heard that planning officers were demanding the removal of dishes and surely that was right. What he had not heard was that, even as these officers pounded the saddles of their ten-speed bikes and demanded action, new 'eyesores' in the shape of cellular telephone base stations were being erected on the roofs of buildings and fitted to masts in farmers' fields all over the country. Why was no one worried about this?

The answer was: one thing at a time. As a result, while planners fought their war of attrition with dishes in the suburbs, 28,000 mobile phone base stations were erected all over the landscape, with the promise of 10,000 more by the end of the century.

Now history is repeating itself. Moving on from satellite dishes, planners and the conservation lobby are now focused on the menace of base stations. They can't get rid of them, of course, but they don't like the thought of them just being there, suggesting that there is some sort of unregulated mobile phone thingy whizzing about the country all the time. Some of them just want them disguised as trees - like the one that was erected last year in Cockermouth - but others think that something more momentous is called for.

To this latter end, the Orange network, in association with the new Gale- powered Prince of Wales Institute of Architecture, is holding a design competition: information about which can be obtained, appropriately enough, via a telephone hotline and a recorded message. Get past this and the instructions for competitors turn out to have a novel spin. It seems that camouflage and disguise, once hot favourites, are no longer enough. Instead entrants are urged to produce 'environmentally sensitive, socially useful and culturally expressive solutions'.

The tragedy is that all this burden-of-meaning stuff is certain to rule out the most socially useful and culturally expressive solution of all: the one adopted by the mobile telephone networks and their engineering advisers before they knew any better. This was to make the masts look just like a revolutionary line-of-sight communications system covering the country. Sadly, our latter-day Potemkin villagers shake their heads over such gauche lack of sophistication. They want something more esoteric. Something that in truth they cannot describe, something that tells them they are somewhere else where none of this has ever happened, and art history is still in the driving seat. Something more like the Teletubbies' windmill.

If so, they need only show patience. Back in the 1920s, even a domestic wireless aerial was as tall as the mast of a J-Class yacht. Now a radio aerial is so small as to be invisible. Alas, conservationists and planners have no faith in the ephemeralising power of technology.

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