Electricity Pylons – Remembering Yesterday

8. Mai 2013

The grid infrastructure that supplies electric power relies on lattice towers. Being developed in the 1920ths, the appearance of these metallic giants resembles the design of one of the most famous symbols of the industrial age: The Eiffel Tower. For sure the romantic city landmark of Paris doesn’t make us think of electricity in the first place. But when it was presented at the World Expo of 1889 in remembrance of the French revolution, it came at the end of a decade of innovation in mastering electricity. Eight years before, in 1881, the first electrical exhibition had taken the public by storm. Hundreds of light bulbs had created an atmosphere of novelty and enchantment. In 1889 the Eiffel tower was erected as the highest building of the world conveying a feeling of ultimate modernity.

The lattice tower is a symbol of the second industrial revolution

The Eiffel toweresk attice design is attached to the history of the second industrial revolution – the rise of electrical engineering, the chemical industry and the excessive use of fossil fuels. Together with it went the idea of progress, the joy of a huge leap forward in convenience and last but not least big money. Besides a complete turnover in life styles, the second industrial revolution brought about the rise of well-connected and centralized infrastructures.

Electricity meant coal fired power plants which were concentrated at industrial centers, at lignite mines, ports and major rivers supplying both the fuel and cooling water. In order to distribute power to consumers, national grid structures were developed in the 1920 and 30s. In Germany a monopoly of what later has been called “Deutschland-AG” – RWE, Siemens, Deutsche Bank, and Thyssen- controlled the emerging large technical system.[1] So in some way, the design of the towers is symbolically connected to the way how big money has created top down energy flows structuring our everyday lives up to the present day.

The lineage of the fossil fuel infrastructure

However, this is only one aspect. The metal threads of the electricity grid are cutting lines into the landscape just as the railroads did before, followed suit by the concrete belts of the motorways. In the 20th century, their emergence changed the “gestalt” of earth’s surface radically within just a couple of decades. No matter if you dwell in a city or in the countryside, everywhere you will find elements of our fossil fuel energy infrastructure. They are signposts of what was considered to be “civilization”.

In the late 20th centurty however, the physical boundaries of planet earth and the reality of climate change became aparent. Now, the ideas of fossil fuel based growth and progress have a dystopian taste. Hence, the lattice towers as landmarks of yesterday’s modernity are turning into symbols for an unsustainable future. If we switch to an economy based on renewable energies, we will need new infrastructures and new visual symbols.


[1] Cf. “Der Stromstaat” by Günter Karweina, Hamburg 1984).


Eine Reaktion zu “Electricity Pylons – Remembering Yesterday”

  1. Marian Bichleram 14. Juni 2013 um 00:45 Uhr

    Inzwischen hat auch RWE das Thema entdeckt – und zitiert meine Überlegungen. Siehe hier:


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