These disused gas cylinders occupy a site on the outskirts of Stockholm. For the first ten years after moving to London, the view west across the train tracks was of a similar pair of monumental structures, transfigured by every sunset. One has since been dismantled to make way for the expanding national and international railway stations.
According to Emma Ailes of BBC News, the first pylons in the UK were designed by architect Sir Reginald Blomfield in 1928, with a “lattice” approach that “sought to be more delicate than the brutalist structures used in Europe and the United States.” Reportedly, he was “inspired by the root of the word pylon – meaning an Egyptian gateway to the sun.”
Every building had its rhythms. These service corridors were the internal hinterlands—the architectural dark matter—so beloved by Bill Mason.
Some may find puzzling or distasteful the parallel I am drawing between the study of nature and the study of technology. After all, nature is good and good for you, whereas everyone knows that technology is ugly, evil, and dangerous.
A few centuries ago—say, on the American western frontier—a quite different view prevailed. Nature was seen as savage, hostile, cruel. Mountains and forests were barriers, not refuges. The lights of civilization were a comforting sight. We took our charter from the book of Genesis, which grants mankind dominion over the beasts, and felt it was both our entitlement and our duty to tame the wilderness, fell the trees, plow the land, and dam the rivers.
In residential neighborhoods some sewage-pumping stations are trompe l'oeil fantasies, dressed up to look like the split-level or colonial houses that surround them. If you look closely, it's not hard to spot these disguised pumphouses: the heavy-duty power connections, the big ventilating fans, and the diesel generator in the backyard are all tip-offs. Furthermore, the windows are often fakes, with sash and shutters adorning a blank wall.
In the twenty-first century, the question most of us ask when disaster strikes is not "How could God let that happen?" but "Who screwed up?" This is a salutary development: We take responsibility for the world we live in. Whether or not our world is the best of all possible worlds, it is a world we have made for ourselves. We live in an engineered landscape, on an engineered planet. Our cities and farms, our dwellings and vehicles, our power plans and communication networks—these are all creations of human artifice. If we don't like it here, we have only ourselves to blame.
In the automobile's technological middle age, it is hard, if not impossible, to tune or repair one's own vehicle. Technical standardization of cars has occurred, and with it the elimination of the user's access to the machine itself. At the same time, the infrastructures that once served those who did not use automobiles atrophied and vanished. Some may say they were deliberately starved out. Railways gave way to more and more roadways. And thus a technology that had been perceived to liberate its users began to enslave them.
I love industry. Pipes. I love fluid and smoke. I love man-made things. I like to see people hard at work, and I like to see sludge and man-made waste.
- A Definition
Lloyd’s Building, London.
Bowellism is a modern architectural style heavily associated with Richard Rogers. The premise is that the services for the building, such as ducts, sewage pipes and lifts, are located on the exterior to maximise space in the interior.
The bipartisan deal contains a pot of money to repair America’s roads and bridges, and build a few more besides. This is the way we usually do infrastructure in America. First we build a ton of roads and bridges that are highly expensive to maintain, especially with our ruinously high construction costs (see this recent article by Jerusalem Demsas). Then, because costs are so high, we wait for a long time to repair the roads and bridges, until civil engineers start screeching, roads get potholed, and there’s a bridge collapse or two. Then we muster up the political will to throw the requisite shit-ton of money at the problem, the potholes and weak bridges get repaired for twice the amount it would have cost had we done it on a regular schedule and three times the amount it would cost if we were a normal rich country. And the whole cycle begins again.
- A Website
The Maintainers, a global research network interested in the concepts of maintenance, infrastructure, repair, and the myriad forms of labor and expertise that sustain our human-built world. Our members come from a variety of backgrounds, including engineers and business leaders, academic historians and social scientists, government and non-profit agencies, artists, activists, coders, and more.
- A Website
It's simple: the Pylon Appreciation Society is a club for people who appreciate electricity pylons.
There’s a movement called the circular economy which is about designing services that don’t include throwing things away. There is no “away.”
A non-extractive economy is going to look very different to today’s economy. These points feel opposed somehow but they are part of the same movement:
- With CupClub, it’s all about infrastructure.
- With the battery-free Game Boy, it’s untethered from infrastructure: once manufactured, no nationwide electricity grid is required to play.
We’ll need better tools to track and measure. There will be new patterns for new types of services. New technologies to build new products. New language. So it’s fascinating seeing the pieces gradually come together.