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Martin Pawley: quick! throw in a competition

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There are architects in Julian Barnes' new novel, England, England, but they are only referred to. The firm is called Slater, Grayson & White - designer of a fictional Pitman House - based on Maxwell House, just as the tycoon, Sir Jack Pitman, is based on Robert Maxwell. Barnes deploys some architects' lingo on behalf of this firm, sometimes maladroitly - 'hardwood from renewable sources' sounds doubtful, and surely the right phrase is 'natural' not 'passive' ventilation. But the point is clear enough. What his architects talk about is as inconsequential as car salesmen's patter: 'secular power tempered by humanitarianism', 'a commitment to society and the environment', 'specially created wetlands', 'energy-saving features' and so on. It all ends up as the verbal backdrop to twin fireplaces, shag-pile carpets and a big desk.

A quick segue to Country Life, where more humbug is being unrolled. There, ex-government minister John Gummer, now friend of society and the environment, has found a new wrinkle in the battle against electronics in the countryside. There is a parallel with the reincarnation of the Prince of Wales' academy of architecture as an East End missionary experience. This began with someone's brilliant idea for putting a stop to mobile-phone base stations by holding an architectural competition to 'broaden the concept base'. Now Gummer has latched on to the idea of a similar competition to broaden the concept base - ie prevent the construction of - what he considers an even more 'appalling intrusion', a 60m lattice tv transmission mast at Hannington in Hampshire.

Ironically, Gummer chose to fire his competition salvo in the very week that the final satellite links in the first global mobile telephone service - the Iridium network - were put into orbit 400 miles above the earth by a Chinese rocket. This event should surely have signalled that the game is up for the anti-antennae people, for if even Chinese rockets are involved, it must be clear that the technology is leaving them further and further behind and, unless they can find a way to hurl an architectural competition onto the launch pad in front of it, antennae of all sorts are in danger of becoming as much facts of life as Walkmen and 40-tonne trucks.

While competitions do engender their own disgruntlement among entrants, they are almost impossible to oppose on rational grounds, which is why it is surprising that no one has proposed holding one in connection with the disposal of the utterly useless wind farms built in Wales over the last few years. Figures published last week show that for all their green credentials, these monsters produce a pitiful quantity of electricity and only when the weather feels like it. The 24-turbine farm at Cemmaes - near that centre of energetic moonshine Machynlleth - averages 1.8 megawatts, while the 56-turbine farm at Carno, the largest in Europe, manages a trifling 10 megawatts. Since uk plc needs a steady 43,000 megawatts just to make your monitor light up when you switch it on, it might be a good idea to whip those aerogenerators off the drawings of the new energy centre tout de suite.

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