Tag Archives: is it that important what something looks like?

“Hello-o! The tree is not trying to be beautiful.”

This post is the first of a new type where you can send me suggestions for inclusion in the gallery of 1) mobile phone masts pretending to be trees or 2) well-designed mobile phone masts not pretending to be anything. Use the form at the bottom to send me a link.

Pylon Competition Update

Today’s Guardian newspaper had images of the shortlist for the pylon competition I wrote about in an earlier post. Here are the six shortlisted entries.

1) T-Pylon by Bystrup Architecture, Design & Engineering
Materials: Hot dip galvanized steel with a paint finish and as alternatives Cor-Ten steel, stainless steel, and hot dip galvanized without paint.
What the judges liked: This proposal postulates simple vertical and horizontal members. It has a classic appearance and elegance, yet its starting point is a pure engineering response.

2) Silhouette by Ian Ritchie Architects and Jane Wernick Associates
Materials: Base: Exposed concrete Structure: Mild Steel hot dip galvanized and painted Exterior finish: Stainless Clad, Steel plate (2mm thick)
What the judges liked: This proposal is for the pylon as a sculptural object within the landscape. The overall effect and sophistication of the expression made this entry stand out aesthetically – particularly when considered in silhouette against the horizon

3) Flower Tower by Gustafson Porter with Atelier One, and Pfisterer
Materials: Painted Galvanised Steel
What the judges liked: The panel were impressed by the elegance of this submission which had been well developed into a contemporary, sculptural – yet technically inventive and feasible option

4) Plexus by Al-A with Arup
Materials: Steel or Composites
What the judges liked: Tension and lightness are emphasised by this sophisticated design. Its design is very much of its time and the panel admired the grace of this visually dynamic proposal

(Does the above entry remind anyone else of van Gogh’s “Wheatfield under Cloudy Sky”?)

5) Y-Pylon by Knight Architects with Roughan & O’Donavon, and ESB International in association with MEGA
Materials: Carbon Steel, Fibre Reinforced Polymer (FRP), Silicon Rubber
What the judges liked: An extremely simple yet sophisticated idea, with a high degree of engineering innovation integrated into a coherent design

6) Totem by New Town Studio, with Structure Workshop
Materials: Tower: Steel Painted Arms: Electrically insulating composite material, painted to match tower
What the judges liked: The panel enjoyed the simplicity yet sophistication of this idea. The decreasing density of structure as the pylon ascended to the sky was both logical and enjoyable, the whole effect was one of disappearance and permeability

You can vote for the one you like, here.

Me, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the pylons we have now but, for what it’s worth, if I had to choose from this lot, I’d first disqualify 2, 4 and 5 for not using the suggested photo, as the rules stated. And I’d then disqualify 2 once more, along with 3, for only showing one pylon – not a whole series of them crossing the countryside. I’d then disqualify 2 a third time for its “dramatic” sky, and 3 a second time for pumping up the colour saturation in the countryside, and 4 a second time for its PC wallpaper landscape complete with pretty flowers, birds and an improbably blue sky.

Either 1 or 6 deserve to win. They have the least to hide.

P.S. Here’s a couple that didn’t make the final six. For more of the story, go here.

Pylon Design Competition

Hello again! Check this out!   http://www.ribapylondesign.com/

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. http://reddotsignal.com/en/products/aviation/Marking-Sphere/OMARK/

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 http://www.pylons.org/ 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.


The Microprocessor is Not Trying to Look Beautiful

Performance-beauty already exists in other fields of manufacture and production. Performance-beauty is about a constant and focussed drive to improve comprehensive performance. Nobody cares what microprocessors look like but there is a never-ending effort to improve their performance, eliminate their defects, simplify their manufacture, and reduce their final cost. Performance is all that matters. You won’t find an ugly microprocessor.

There are other things besides microprocessors in which performance-beauty is paramount. It is difficult to appreciate their beauty in terms of anything but performance. We don’t have to know anything about assault rifles to think that the American M-16 looks better than the Russian AK-47 at first sight. However, the AK-47 is far superior in terms of performance. Knowing this, it is no longer possible to look at the M-16 in the same way. The AK-47 is not trying to look beautiful. Knowledge of performance affects our perception of beauty.

Similarly, the ‘Eurofighter’ looks better at first sight than the Sukhoi SU-37 which  is probably the best fighter plane ever made. The SU-37 is not trying to look beautiful. Once more, knowing that the performance of the SU-37 is in a class of its own changes our perception of beauty. The shapes of these things aren’t important. Their performance is everything. It is a sad fact that these last two pairs of examples are of machines designed to kill people, but it does show that we can achieve performance-beauty if we put our minds to it. All these things have peformance-beauty. Buildings can too – if we want.


Inspirations for Performance-Beauty Architecture

1) Vernacular architecture of many countries has the efficient and climate-aware use of local materials. Such buildings were never intended to be called architecture. Many people now find their simple honesty refreshing.

Performance-beauty architecture has a simple honesty.

2) Shanty towns on the edge of large cities such as Capetown, Rio de Janeiro, Manila or Mumbai are not thought of as architecture either. They use whatever materials are available to achieve the minimum acceptable levels of safety and shelter. There is no surplus for beauty.

Performance-beauty architecture makes good use of whatever there is.

3) The Lapatie House (1993) by Lacaton & Vassal shows that a house of double the area can be achieved when the principles of vernacular architecture and shanty towns are applied to general housing. Why use expensive triple glazing to climatically divide inside from outside when an inexpensive acrylic ‘greenhouse’ can provide a liveable transition zone that can be used according to the season?

Performance-beauty architecture will always have a place for ingenuity.

4) Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House (1929) attempted to re-think the construction of a house as if it were any other item of industrial production. The Dymaxion House house was designed for efficient spatial enclosure, ease of fabrication, and efficient use of resources.

Performance-beauty architecture has no pre-conceived ideas of visual beauty.

5) The architecture of Hannes Meyer has been largely ignored despite him being the Director of the Bauhaus between Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. Meyer believed that “the functional diagram and the economic programme are the determining principles of the building project.” In his projects, and particularly his Petersschule (1926), he chose materials on the basis of their performance, continually amending and adding to his list.

Performance-beauty architecture makes every element and every material significant.

6) Structures in extreme environments all feature performance-beauty. They have to. Polar research stations, alpine observatories such as Jungfraujoch and the Ensco- jack-up oil rig are designed to operate in extreme and often hostile environments. Survival is the concern, not beauty, yet these structures have integrity and purpose.

Performance-beauty architecture will protect us from the more extreme environments to come and can also benefit us in the meantime.