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Pylon Design Competition

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Yes, it’s an RIBA-approved competition to re-design electricity pylons. Here’s all the good bits from the competition brief, deconstructed.

Competition Objective
The challenging target of an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, means substantial change in our energy infrastructure with electricity becoming an increasingly important part of our energy mix.

This might be a true statement.

In order to deliver that electricity to our homes, communities and businesses, the UK will see a significant increase in the number of pylons, together with underground cables.

It’s already starting to get silly. If you have underground cables, you don’t need pylons. If you have pylons, then you’re probably going to hang overground cables from them. But that minor quibble seems to get corrected in the next sentence.

This network of pylons and cables have [sic.] the potential to transform our landscapes for good or bad, and for generations to come.

There’s no need to talk about ‘potential’ because we can be certain that a network of pylons WILL transform the landscape. One way or another. Generally, if you add one thing to another, you get something different. We don’t know if it will be for better or worse but, usually, when we  the words “for generations to come” at the end, we don’t expect something nice to happen.  

Also, it might be “our landscapes” but to many vocal somebodies, “it’s my backyard!” In the UK, beauty or ugliness is determined by how much it affects property values. Opposition to pylons usually betrays a fear for individual property values first, and local property values second, rather than any basic “love” for the countryside. This links to what seems to be the general tone.

The competition aims to help initiate and inform this debate through the vehicle of design and to explore the potential for a new generation of pylon within our landscapes.


The brief acknowledges that pylons are necessary since the only alternatives are to use less electricity, or for localized micro-generation via. renewables to suddenly become mainstream. However, the subject has now narrowed to the pylons only.

We are therefore seeking highly innovative and imaginative solutions that nevertheless respond to the exacting technical requirements and offer the potential for development into deliverable projects. Proposals should be both grounded in reality and be beautiful.

The fact they’re asking for proposals that are both grounded in reality AND beautiful suggests they think that existing pylons are not grounded in reality AND beautiful at the same time or, at least, not grounded in reality AND beautiful to many. The assumption is that pylons are not beautiful. The addition of the B-word makes this competition into a beauty vs. function fistfight with (“our”) beautiful  landscapes in one corner and the nasty pylons in the other. It gets worse.

There is no specific site set for this project however at least one image should show the scheme in the context of the image provided below.
generic fair landscape of yore, in which people lived happily without electricity
Stage One Assessment Criteria
Design Quality (40%): appearance, creative response, quality and clarity of presentation
Response to and understanding of Brief (40%): construction approach, technical viability, functionality and practicality
Philosophy and Approach (20%): design philosophy

Here, you’ll notice that Design Quality (40%) is some unknown combination of “appearance” and “creative response” and has nothing to do with “construction approach, technical viability, functionality and practicality”. This is serious. The one and only theme of this blog is that we believe that Design Quality = Construction Approach, Technical Viability, Functionality and Practicality. Moreover, that IS our “philosophy and approach”. For misfits, all three are the same thing.

There was a similar competition in Iceland in 2009. Here are two of the entries. The first  has the shape of the pylon determined “parametrically” – which, these days, is supposed to be “a good thing” but according to irrelevant variables such as latitude and longitude! Follow this link to some profoundly desperate archispeak. The second entry suggests that the pylons can be given postures expressing (!) their surroundings, the terrain, and their loadings.

This second entry won a prize for Best Unbuilt Architecture. Here’s what eventually won.

The next image is from another competition. It’s planty allusions are sweet, however misguided, so it’s no surprise that, with this design, the new pylons would cost three times as much as standard pylons.

Designed by Hugh Dutton Asso­ci­ates for a com­pet­i­tion run by the Italian elec­tri­city trans­mis­sion company Terna.

Anyway, pylons were on my mind last Thursday, as I was driving along Emirates Road.

Their design hasn’t changed much since the 1930s and there’s probably a very good reason for this – it’s probably because they’re already as perfect as they can be. Pylons are constructed using ordinary materials and simple processes and do a very important job that needs to be done safely. They can be easily varied to cope with differing types and amounts of loadings both present and future. The conventional designs adapt easily to these conditions to the extent that it is rare to see pylons of only one type.


Another serious problem with the current competition and indeed all pylon design competitions I’ve encountered so far is that the design is judged upon an image of a landscape with a single line of pylons gingerly crossing it. Even the first image in this post shows two types of pylon. 


And why is it always about the pylons anyway? It may be possible to prettify them if that’s what people want, but the 220kV cables aren’t exactly invisible either. If pylons are “unnatural” then strings of 220kV high-tension lines looping across the landscape are hardly “organic” despite their catenary curves. I sense a double standard. More importantly, if your high-tension line is anywhere near an airport, a hospital, a river or anywhere that might have aircraft or helicopter traffic, then you’re going to need a set of these babies.

OMARK Obstruction Marking SphereAviation obstruction marking sphere is designed to provide daytime visual warning of electricity transmission line for aircraft pilots, especially cross-river high-voltage transmission lines.A marker should be of one colour. When installed, white and red, or white and orange markers should be displayed alternately. The colour selected should contrast with the background against which it will be seen.

Visible distance: 1200 metres; Voltage range: 35KV – 1000KV; Diameter: 600mm, 900mm; Colour: Orange, Red, White; Weight: 2.5kg; Option: Reflective strip for night aid


pylons and cables near DXB

This current competition, like the other ones, is based on questionable assumptions, sets an impossible brief, and will judge the entries according to misguided criteria. I wish its entrants all the best, but I really can’t see what architects have to offer since what architects basically do is add value to property and this isn’t possible when any change to a landscape isn’t going to be welcome. It’ll be interesting to see if Britain’s brightest architectural brains take up the challenge. What would a Foster & Partners’ pylon look like? A Zaha Hadid one? A Robert Adam one? Will Thomas Heatherwick or any other “Best of British” media darling have a go?

Ultimately, we can expect this competition to go the same way as Iceland’s. Lots of nice ideas but none actually feasible in the current economic climate. I doubt if British electricity consumers will care to pay more for generations to come no matter what the appearance, creative response or design philosophy of the winning entry is.

Rather than seek to compromise the integrity of a near-perfect object as this competition does, it might be more useful to look for and see beauty in the pylons we have. Here’s a link to a pylon appreciation website There, they’re getting pretty excited about this competition.

We at MISFITS’ aren’t expecting much. HOWEVER, if the winning proposal has ALL the advantages of current pylons AND is universally regarded as “beautiful” for REALISTIC environments and configurations, then I will have been wrong and this competition will have been A GOOD THING after all.



  • UPDATE: Shortlisted designs from the national pylon competition held by the Department of Energy and Climate Change to find a new standard design will be revealed at an event at the V&A as part of the London festival of design; the final judging takes place on 12 October.