Of Poles and Pylons

(Nederlandse versie)

Zoetermeer wintracks

Suddenly there are a lot of them: pairs of tall, smooth, whitish poles. Bladeless windmill masts that are taking the place of the traditional miniature Eiffel towers.

Wintracks is what these high-voltage pylons are called by the company that has developed them, Dutch-German grid operator TenneT. (How playful, those telegraph-pole T’s.)

According to TenneT, the wintrack has “an innovative, sleek construction” that introduces an element of “visual quietness” in the landscape and also “produces a considerably narrower magnetic field”. It is “painted in the most common sky colour in the Netherlands: light gray. Because of this color, the masts often disappear in the landscape.”
Hoogspanningsstation Bleiswijk © Lodewijk Muns 2017
The narrow magnetic field may be an advantage (it is because the wires are hung closer together). But the poles do not “disappear” against the sky. Cycling one gray morning to the outskirts of desolate Zoetermeer I can see them from afar. Admittedly, any other colour would be worse.

I can’t be the only one who takes offense at those outsize tubes. Is there no action group Save the Lattice Tower?

I haven’t found it, but there is a website of “pylon geeks” that admits to have “slight appreciation” of the new masts, which are considered “unimaginative” and called knitting needles, bean stakes, and chopsticks.

The information on this site also confirms my suspicion: the wires are tighter. Gone are the flowy curves that may give you such pleasant dizzying sensations when you look up while driving past them.

Undoubtedly there must have been many protests when the “classic” lattice mast was introduced. And often I too wish they were gone. But in the flat and empty Dutch agricultural landscape (or what’s left of it) they create a visual rhythm. They direct the gaze to the distance. Make a connection between heaven and earth.

It is true: the aesthetic value of the high-voltage line was underappreciated in the past. A 1986 brochure containing contributions from scientists and artists, De schoonheid van hoogspanningslijnen in het Hollandse landschap (The Beauty of High-Voltage Lines in the Dutch Landscape), still endeavours to contradict the view that high-voltage lines “pollute the horizon”. It reminds us how Dutch painters of the seventeenth century opened their compatriots’ eyes to the scenic quality of the windmills: once controversial, apparently, as is the wind turbine nowadays.

The same booklet contains a contribution about The Philosophy of the Tube Tower and the Future of the Electricity Pylon, by the engineers Th. Ykema and R. J. Zoomer. They note that the policy at the time was — just like now — camouflage, under the curiously defeatist premise that “an overhead line can never amount to an improvement of the landscape” (page 46). But, according to Zoomer and Ykema, “the tube mast … can’t hide in the open landscape … It is standing there as if calling Don’t look at me!” (p.46)

The lattice mast makes no attempt at camouflage. And yet it is not too obtrusive: you may look right through it from all sides. Shaped as some middle thing between man and tree it stands stoutly on its short legs, transforming the play of forces into a play of lines. Its anthropomorphism may be endearing, although previous generations seem to have felt differently.

A reference to this booklet may be found in Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009). One of the author’s conversation partners, an engineer and member of the Pylon Appreciation Society, has found inspiration in its pages. He “concluded that it would perhaps be left to artists of our own day to teach us to discern the virtues of the furniture of contemporary technology. He hoped that photographs of conductors might in the future hang over dining tables and that someone might write a libretto for an opera set along the grid” (p. 214).

Who knows — but this is looking backwards.  Under the aspects of construction and design, the lattice tower looks like a remnant of nineteenth-century industrialism. Although the construction principle is timeless and allows infinite variation.

Should we be taught to see the beauty of these new poles, as our ancestors apparently appreciated the windmills through the pictorial eye of the painters? I have not yet seen any photos that convince me of the scenic quality of the wintracks. (Here is a nice photo series about the Achterhoek region.)

If they have to last half a century or longer, there should be a fierce public debate. Before they start planting those poles all over the countryside.