In his 2003 essay A Short History of the Future of Walking, Phil Smith issued a provocation:
‘Does anyone ever follow the tracks of the pylons? Even their maintainers? From the countryside into the city – isn’t that where they’re going? No good calling them ugly and forgetting them. Or calling them beautiful and patronising them. Because the city doesn’t work without them. They are an urban path out here. They are an arterial route. No good walking the city and not walking them. And what strange structure is that in the middle distance, where we do not go? It would be such a difficult journey. The route of pylons cuts against the walkable. And the buzz/hum; how long could you stand it? The prospect of a journey of discomfort. Too close to dangerous power, an individual or small group walking in the energy field for tens of thousands.
I feel obliged to make that walk one day, but I don’t relish it: to be a living cross-cutter, a cross-sectioner, an economic particle, a physics, to ride the line of illuminating, incinerating power, the power of the city. Dare? Ride the bodies electric? Hmm.’
I discovered this after I’d already had the idea for the Trans-missions performance score, but it was affirming to know that someone else had been thinking about pylons and walking.
In the course of researching this piece, I have had cause to photograph, draw, read about or otherwise geek out over pylons. And discovered in the process, that pylons have formed the inspiration for a number of artists. My favourite pieces are below. Read it and weep (or salivate), fellow pylon geeks.
1301 fluorescent tubes stuck in the ground under an overhead powerline near Bristol, powered only by the electric fields generated by the lines.
Richard Box, artist-in-residence at Bristol University’s physics department, got the idea for the installation after a chance conversation with a friend. ‘He was telling me he used to play with a fluorescent tube under the pylons by his house,’ says Box. ‘He said it lit up like a light sabre.’ Box decided to see if he could fill a field with tubes lit by powerlines. After a few weeks hunting for a site, he found a field, slipped the local farmer £200 and planted 3,600 square metres with tubes collected from hospitals. A fluorescent tube glows when an electrical voltage is set up across it. The electric field set up inside the tube excites atoms of mercury gas, making them emit ultraviolet light. This invisible light strikes the phosphor coating on the glass tube, making it glow. Because powerlines are typically 400,000 volts, and Earth is at an electrical potential voltage of zero volts, pylons create electric fields between the cables they carry and the ground. Box denies that he aimed to draw attention to the potential dangers of powerlines, ‘For me, it was just the amazement of taking something that’s invisible and making it visible,’ he says. ‘When it worked, I thought: ‘This is amazing.’’
Pylons of Great Britain was an entry to the 2011 Pylon design competition, organised by the National Grid and the Royal Institution of British Architects (RIBA). It was not selected by the judges. The text and images in this article are based on excerpts from the submitted proposal. The successful entries can be viewed here.
‘1. People think pylons are ugly
- Therefore we need to make them less ugly.
- Who is good at making things look less ugly?
What is proposed therefore is not a singular design for the pylon, but rather a generative system; a piece of open, parametric software which allows the distinctive lattice pylon to ‘evolve’ to its local environment. In each case, a unique structural topology is generated, which is articulated in a structural system of nodes and tubular steel connectors. These parts can be manufactured, shipped and assembled with the same efficiency (but far greater effectiveness) as a universal solution, but allows structural and programmatic mutations: pylons as landmarks, follies, agricultural hardware, secret bluetooth tags… In essex, one wildlife conservation group co-design a pylon incorporating a bat habitat. Near the M5 motorway, a parish council commission an artist, who fits fluorescent strip lights to the pylon structure. Unwired, the bulbs cast an eerie glow across the motorway as the magnetic field around the power lines activates the mercury vapour in the tubes. Guidebooks note that they are referred to locally as the ‘ghost pylons’.
The question of ugliness? Not solved, but somehow less important than it previously seemed.’
‘a 150 km journey north from Sydney to where its power is generated by coal in the Hunter Valley. “The work will re-inflect poet Judith Wright’s metaphor of the sanctuary-destroying road which ‘leads into the world’s cities like a long fuse laid’ (‘Sanctuary’, 1955).’