What is the allure of a pylon? The utility tower that supports and transports power lines faced the expected resistance in its 20th-century march across the globe, as it disrupted and dominated the landscape. Yet there is a surprising number of people who love these steel giants, obsessing over unique examples like the Carquinez Strait Powerline Crossing in California that was the first to traverse a major river, or the Mettlen–Lavorgo powerline in Switzerland which emerges from an artificial lake. “Pylon spotters” have formed the Pylon Appreciation Society — a “club for people who appreciate electricity pylons” (member benefits including a field guide to British pylons and a badge) — and the Pylon of the Month site offers a regular visual fix.
The Science Museum in London tweeted on September 20 that they had just published 1,000 historic photographs of electricity pylons from around the world. Flipping through the digitized black and white images, there is something striking about their shapes and interaction with their environments. Power lines supported by two wooden poles rise above a scrubby terrain in the United States; lattices of metal parade over the hills of Australia. Sometimes people appear in the photographs, working in the towers and standing on the ground below, dwarfed by this symbol of human progress.
In the early decades of the 20th century, as the pylon began its takeover, there were artists and authors drawn to the pylon as an emblem of the modern world. Sculptor Barbara Hepworth once recalled on a train ride in the UK witnessing “pylons in lovely juxtaposition with spring turf and trees of every stature. It is the relationship of these things that makes such loveliness.” In her stringed sculptures, Hepworth seemed to join these modern lines with organic forms, with “Orpheus” even involving a motor to rotate the piece. In the 1930s, Stephen Spender, one of the “pylon poets” who responded to England’s newly industrial landscapes, wrote in “The Pylons“:
Now over these small hills, they have built the concrete
That trails black wire
Pylons, those pillars
Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret.
These artists were reacting more to the might of human technology than the pylon itself, and as the towers spread, that relationship became more complicated. There’s now an over 910-foot pylon in China, and pylons that loom tall on mountains in the Alps. There have been steps to make the intimidating metal leviathans more friendly, with the UK introducing a design in 2015 that has a more unobtrusive diamond shape. There is a Mickey Mouse pylon at the substation that powers Disney World in Florida, and pylons shaped like jesters in Újhartyán, Hungary. In 2010, art students in Germany augmented a pylon with colorful stained glass.
The precarious height of pylons means they can be hazards during earthquakes and storms. The Science Museum also has historic photographs of “pylon failure,” where towers are crumpled and twisted into contorted shapes. In 2015, artist Alex Chinneck’s “A Bullet from a Shooting Star” was installed among industrial buildings in London, its upside-down pylon form suggesting that progress was upended, piercing the Earth. Pylons with their skeletal grace, draped with connecting wires, have both a fascination and a dread in their power. And in their ubiquitous strangeness, there is a question about what modernity should look like, and what we’ve given up in our landscapes for their electric presence.
View more historic photographs of electricity pylons online at the Science Museum, London.