Pylon-Spotting in Architectural Magazines c.1950
“Encase your legs in nylons,
Bestride your hills with pylons
O age without a soul;
Away with gentle willows
And all the elmy billows
That through your valleys roll…”
In his 1955 poem “Inexpensive Progress,” poet laureate John Betjeman used electric pylons as a representation of the defacements brought by post-war reconstruction and modernisation projects to the British landscape. A similar anti-modern and preservationist stance could be found in the pages of the Architectural Review (AR) magazine in the post-war period when Betjeman was one of its editors. However, a closer examination of the appearance of pylons in the AR revealed a more complex and contradictory attitude towards modernism held by its editors and contributors — underscored by the fact that electrical pylon in Britain was first designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, who was a member of the first editorial board of the AR (1896). Ironically, despite his best effort to steer away from modernist connotations, Blomfield’s pylon was used as a signposting of modernisation’s adverse effects less than three decades after it was first implemented in Britain. At stake was also that after the rupture of the Second World War, pylons’ meanings multiplied. They were deemed as eye-sores but were also cherished as a part of the English countryside. They functioned as structures of modernisation but also heritages demarcating the British achievements in the earlier part of the century. An examination of the environmental and emotional implications of electrical pylons in architectural publications, this paper argues, offers an alternative framework for examining the attitude towards modernisation in post-war Britain.
This paper pays particular attention to architectural and planning debates published in the AR in the post-war period, including the series of thematic articles entitled “the Outrage”, “the Encroachment”, and “the Heritage.” This study also examines the works of AR editors that were published elsewhere, such as the aforementioned Betjeman’s poem, as well as Gordon Cullen’s influential 1961 book The Concise Townscape. To better understand the intellectual terrain of post-war British architecture, this paper also takes into consideration the uses of pylon by architects and architectural writers whose attitude towards modernism differed from the AR’s. For example, Alison and Peter Smithson, in collaboration with Theo Crosby and Ron Simpson, designed an enlarged pylon for their entry to the Vertical Feature competition in the Festival of Britain. By spotting pylon in post-war British architectural publications and propositions, this paper reveals previously overlooked connections and seeks to add to the current studies into the complex relationship between modernisation and conservation in post-war Britain.