Windmills and Pylons

Autumn has come to the Low Countries, and with it, heavy rains. The ground got good and soaked last night, and as the temperatures dropped, the wet land breathed fog. Urban areas, with all of their hard landscaping, still had good visibility. But this morning, the nature reserve near our house was wreathed in thick white mist.  It seemed like a good day to divert my commute and cycle through it, stopping to take a picture or three.


This is the autumn of the Old Masters, spread across a landscape of ochres and browns, creamy and dimmed with the varnish of the morning mist.  And it wouldn’t be the same without the hummocked shape of the windmill in the distance, bare vanes marking the land as inescapably Dutch.

But hang on, here.  Hold the chocolate box.

When you get right down to it, windmills are not intrinsically scenic.  Oh, we treasure them now, transplanting them carefully to nature reserves and tourist parks.  But they’re really industrial equipment, power-generating and water-moving engines, as inherently romantic as an oil derrick or an electricity pylon.


Indeed, it was not much further on my commute that I came upon the most beautiful pylon standing in the pale morning sun. Its clean, simple lines balanced the last lushness of the autumn vegetation.  The grand swoop of its gently humming wires framed the clear blue sky above me, and the pure echo of its form below was a testament to the stillness and clarity of the water beside it.  At its feet the placid cattle grazed…

You’re not buying this one, are you?

But really, what’s the difference between the windmill and the pylon, apart from a few centuries and some unevenly distributed obsolescence?  They’re both part of the infrastructure of the land, the hardware on which the operating system of Dutch society runs.

Indeed, in a few centuries we may be collecting old mismatched electric pylons from all over the country and setting them up in little parks.  Enthusiasts will clean them and care for them, climbing to the tops in almost-correct period harnesses.  Perhaps they’ll string dead wires among them so that school parties can picture the old days of the electric grid.  Gaggles of tourists will take group shots around their bases before heading off in search of ice cream.

But even now, there’s a decent case to be made for learning to appreciate the inevitable artifacts of our technology.

After all, what people loathe, they neglect.  I think about the changing themes of art since the WPA’s celebratory murals of the early twentieth century, and wonder if America’s crumbling infrastructure is not as much the product of a lack of love as it is the straitened state of public finances.

Another reason to cherish these things is that they’re here to stay.  That pylon is part of a line that brings power from Amsterdam to the next major city to the north.  It’s not going anywhere.  So we who live near it can either look on it with loathing or find some beauty in its lines.

This is something that the Dutch seem to be very good at.  I’ve cycled past lovely homes that look across a river to a junkyard.  Our own very pleasant suburban house has a retail park behind it.  In general, the ways that towns here mix residential, commercial, and light industrial facilities bespeaks—at the very least—a tolerance of infrastructure in the Netherlands.

This is not to say that tolerance is uncritical.  The wires in that picture are high-voltage ones, carrying as much power as the law allows through residential areas.  There’s been pressure to increase the voltage of the line north yet higher, but that would mean removing people from the homes underneath them.  It’s caused a lot of debate in our village. One can appreciate the clean shape of the pylon against the October skies without approving of every use to which it might be put.

When I look at our future (leaving aside the possibility of the collapse of civilization), I see more technological intervention rather than less.  Given that, I hope we can learn to turn our ceaseless thirst for beauty, that common drive that gives us cave paintings, sculpture, and ruin porn alike, toward our infrastructure and the tools we use to maintain it.

I think we’d be happier if we could.

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15 Responses to Windmills and Pylons

  1. Dave Harmon says:

    I’d think the biggest difference is design. The “classic” Dutch windmills like that one are actual buildings with exterior facings — they look like you could actually live in one, and I’d guess some folks did. With the sail-like arms, Don Quixote’s delusion of a giant doesn’t seem completely out of whack. And AIUI, they date from a period where if you built something that big which was ugly, you’d get flak from your own neighbors, the people who would be bringing you grain to grind into flour.

    The power pylon you show is a lot nicer-looking than some I remember from my childhood (even a power company can get flack from their neighbors, and they have a lot of neighbors), but it’s still spare and functional — the minimum structure of steel needed to serve it’s purpose. Yes, there’s some beauty in it, but it still looks more like a Martian Tripod than a human dwelling. The hyperefficient modern windmills of today’s “wind farms” suffer the same failing — they’re blatantly machines plunked down onto the landscape, and the best part about their appearance is again that their spareness makes them slightly less obtrusive.

  2. But which designs we like and which we find intrusive is dependent on the aesthetics of our time and culture. Which is exactly the issue at hand here.

    Even in the 17th century, a windmill was unmistakably a piece of heavy equipment. You could clad it in wood and thatch it, though that was as much to protect the machinery (and any people living inside; the one in the picture is inhabited to this day) as anything else. But the shape of the building and the great big vanes are just not house-like. If the neighbors didn’t like having a piece of infrastructure in their faces, then that windmill was an eyesore and a blot on the landscape.

    In particular, I would argue that the extraneous ornamentation on a windmill (such as it is) is not a defensive maneuver to ward off angry neighbors. (These were built in the working countryside, not the image-conscious Golden Age cities.) I think the paintwork and the occasional folk art comes from the same impulse I’m trying to arouse about the pylon: a kind of love of the things that make our lives possible, like the name of a ship or the ironwork of a Victorian train station.

    We like these windmills now because we’re used to them. They look like they fit into the countryside because our image of the countryside includes them.

    And though electricity pylons and modern windmills don’t fit their aesthetic, aesthetics themselves have moved on. We live in a post-Mondrian world, where clean lines and form-follows-function simplicity are legitimate, recognized sources of visual appeal.

    A seventeenth-century person might find that pylon ugly, but we’re not seventeenth-century people, and we aren’t living in a seventeenth-century landscape. We have modern stuff around us, built for different reasons and under different constraints. And we like having it—I’m much happier living in a house with electricity, under skies not black with coal smoke, just as a seventeenth-century Dutch woman liked having dry feet. The price of these technologies is the presence of the infrastructure to support them.

    My argument is that we can either pay it grudgingly, or we can learn to find some pleasure in it.

    (Actually, I’ve always liked the look of modern windmills. They give me a feeling of the fantastic and the unexpected.)

  3. Fade Manley says:

    I’ve always liked modern windmills too, actually. I remember the tiny shock the first time I saw one. The moment of “that is all wrong! too small and too sleek!” and “oh, that thing means business,” and I can imagine seeing one, or a field of one, in some modern art museums.

  4. SamChevre says:

    The thing is, I like the pylon. I like the things people can build (raising a little infrastructure geek doesn’t hurt). I look at the Pocahontas Parkway and it really seems like one of the roads of the gods.

  5. SamChevre @4:

    If you like infrastructure geekery, check out the Falkirk Wheel. Seeing it for the first time was a living-in-the-future moment.

  6. pecunium says:

    Fade: hunh…. my first thought at modern windmills was, “so big and frail”. Those arms, are HUGE. The sweep is like 150′.

    I like pylons. The sense of motion I see in them. They take current from “there” and move it to “over there”, as they pass through “here”. They can’t function in isolation. I suspect some of the fondness for windmills (of the sort in that splendid photo) is our idea that they were somehow rustic and isolated. People see them the way they see lighthouses.

    I just got a spot on a small, and perhaps not terribly important, comittee: the Patrons Advisory Committee for PATH (the Trans-Hudson trains connecting the Manhattan looking areas of New Jersey to New York). It’s being fun. The people who work PATH, are nice. They are infrastructure geeks (I am too, and having had to worry about Logistics made me more of one). So last night was spent talking about how the trains work, and what they cost, and how to maintain them, while serving the people who use them (and those who merely benefit from) them.

    I get to do it for three more Weds. evenings. It’s a good feeling, tending to the bones which support the body of the city.

  7. pecunium says:

    Grumble. WordPress has decided I don’t exist anymore, and (for reasons arcane to me) refuses to let me post here in FF. I am no longer allowed to make a wordpress comment under my own name; because if I use my preferred email, it balks. If I link to my blog, it balks.

    Because I am not paying them, they won’t deign to speak to me; so if I plunk down money, for things I don’t want, they may be able to fix it, they may not.

    The frustrations with this bit of infrastructure are more than a little irksome.

  8. g2-0ebb245d7e3f4728cb75f3618decb958 says:

    Those photos are (both) gorgeous!

    I agree that a huge amount of how we perceive these pieces of infrastructure aesthetically depends on what we’re used to rather than on their intrinsic properties. But I’ve been trying to think of whether there are any more cross-culturally stable (not to say objective) factors, and the one thing I’ve been able to come up with so far is scale.

    The Pocahontas Parkway certainly does look impressive to me, but when I think about what it would be like to actually be in that picture, it seems like an inhospitable, even hostile environment — at least for anyone not in a car. It’s a road of the gods, all right, and the gods ride in steel chariots powered by explosions. (And I am not a god. I drive an omafiets.)

    So the classic Dutch windmill is friendly, for all that its shape is non-houselike, because I can interact with it on a human scale. The pylon is impressive, and some day it may even become quaint and picturesque, but I think it will always be aloof.

    Here’s another pair — two water towers, built about a century (and nearly four million smoots) apart: one in Delft, the other in Yorkton, Saskatchewan. (Both cities are proud enough of their water towers to have Web pages about them! And note that the one in Delft “has an agenda of its own.”) Similar shapes, same (original) function, very different impressions. And I think part of what the decorative detail on the Delft one does is provide human-scale stuff to interact with, even just visually. The “form-follows-function” quality of the Yorkton tower isn’t necessarily ugly, but it doesn’t exactly invite one to get closer, either.

  9. Q. Pheevr says:

    Also, I’d like to echo pecunium’s frustration with WordPress. I have no idea why it decided that my name was g2-0ebb245d7e3f4728cb75f3618decb958.

  10. SamChevre says:

    Thank you abi, the Falkirk Wheel is awesome and not something I’d heard of before.

    I agree with Q Pheevr that the human-scaledness of the windmill makes it seem more approachable. (For me, though, that’s limited because even human-scaled industrial machinery is dangerous-feeling on a gut level.) And the Pocahontas Parkway is terrifying to drive on–it’s on an interstate highway, so it’s not bikeable. It really feels like “this wasn’t built to your scale”–like some of the French cathedrals (Chartres in particular).

  11. But modern windmills aren’t human-scaled. As Terry says, they’re huge. I love them, but mostly from a distance, in rows, as a form of scenery rather than interactive elements.

    I think there are things that should be human-scaled. But there other things (the Millau Viaduct, for instance) aren’t supposed to be human-scaled. I’d say “appropriate scale” is a good axis of evaluation.

    I should emphasize that I’m more interested in approaching these things looking for beauty than in declaring them All Lovely, Hush You Doubters. One can, as Juliet promises, “look to like, if looking liking move,” but it’s also possible to look at things that way and come away saying, “No, this doesn’t work for me.”

    Hopefully, then, we can pressure the bodies that choose the designs for these things to choose better ones—be the neighbors of Dave’s comment, if you will. But that’s pressure that comes better from someone who doesn’t come across as minded never to be pleased.

  12. fadeaccompli says:

    The Falkirk Wheel is glorious; it makes me want to write science fiction with enormous churning mega-structures that are not terrifying but elegant and admirable, and all the more for being present already.

  13. Serge Broom says:

    “…I hope we can learn to turn our ceaseless thirst for beauty (…) toward our infrastructure…”

    A few years ago, I watched a documentary on how the towers of the Bay Bridge’s new span went up, and the whole thing really is quite beautiful to look at.

  14. Diatryma says:

    I like seeing wind farms. The turbines are frail and colossal, they light intermittently in the dusk, and if you drive on 80 long enough, you’ll pass at least one truck carrying a blade. Huge, strange things, the blades.

    I think that making the pylon beautiful, rather than appreciating its industrial aesthetics, is more difficult than making a windmill beautiful. I like wind farm aesthetics, and I don’t like pylons as much, and that’s due to design constraints on them both. Both are produced in large quantities and must be standardized to a great extent and transported to a variety of places. The only way I can think to beautify a pylon according to my own tastes is to add color– paint, possibly in a gradient either vertically or horizontally. It adds money, but so does making a home into a windmill or vice-versa.

  15. Apparently, there was a pylon design competition in the UK. Entries here, finalists here. I think the final winner is pretty dull in comparison with some of the other designs, and I don’t see anything in the news about what happened after the competition.

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