The aesthetics of wind farms

Windfarm, looking north from Lauder

Sunlight. For the first time in weeks. I noticed that, and decided to take advantage by taking a brief lunchtime stroll on the wide open heathland on Lauder hill, near my office.

The views are immense. Look north and the hills roll towards Edinburgh. Look south and you can see the Eildon Hills, and beyond that, England. You can also see at least three windfarms. That doesn't bother me: I think they are rather spectacular, even more so on a brilliantly clear day as we had today.

I'm aware that isn't a universal view, as I was reminded later in the afternoon when I read a fascinating article on the BBC website about the feasibility of placing turbines on the seabed. Quite apart from the practical benefit of there being a constant source of power to keep them turning - tides being utterly predictable, unlike wind - the erasure of the machines from the skyline would be welcomed by many.

As a designer I'm interested why they provoke such strongly divergent opinions. It isn't, I think, because they are of themselves ugly. Wind turbines are designed following exactly the same modernist aesthetic that has proven so wildly popular when applied to computing devices such as the iPad, furniture from IKEA, and contemporary car models. Simple - often monochrome - colour schemes, smooth surfaces, rounded corners, minimal ornamentation, no extraneous parts, everything in its right place. Look at a wind turbine close up and you'll see the design is wholly appropriate: additions would be superfluous.

The fundamental controversy consists in whether it is appropriate to transplant this aesthetic to nature. Modernist design works well when held in the palm of a hand, sitting in the corner of a sunlit lounge, or gliding down the motorway. Can it be transplanted to a bare hillside, or an open sea? Those who hate windfarms, and hate is not too strong a word, do so because the farm is an intruder, alien to a certain concept of nature, injecting a harshly discordant note into a harmonious pastoral symphony.

I can understand that point of view, but I'd like to make a few comments:

Firstly, I think the line between 'nature' and 'machine' is drawn too bluntly. It's important to note that many of the landscapes on which wind farms are constructed have been cultivated for millenia, and are not simply 'natural'. And modernist design is inspired by nature. Not in the sense of imitating the appearance of natural forms through ornamentation, but rather by learning from nature's efficiency and simplicity. The appearance of a tree, for example, is inevitable: its form follows its function: it is structured according to an inner logic. So with good design: it has an inevitable, necessary quality. There's a reason wind turbines look like they do, because it's the simplest design we've yet managed to come up for harnessing the energy of the wind.

Not always popular (detail from John Constable, 'A windmill at Stoke, near Ipswich')

Second, it is worth noting that windmills, the appealing relics of an older economy, were never built with aesthetics in mind. They were workhorses for generating power, built with the materials that happened to be available, in the most pragmatic fashion possible. They weren't universally popular when they first appeared, but, thanks in part to their depiction by the great landscape painters, are now viewed with affection.

And third, the fact that wind farms are a renewable form of energy generation should colour our perspective. There is a halo effect. We know that wind farms offer a clean and sustainable source of power. In this sense there is a deep sympathy between a wind farm and its environment: the farm works with rather than plunders nature.

I hasten to note that I do think one can have too many windfarms, and am sympathetic to concerns that certain landscapes are in danger of being overpopulated by turbine forests. But, in general terms, for the reasons I've outlined I think they are a welcome addition to our horizons. There's actually quite a lot about this subject online; if you're interested here are two of the best pieces I've come across:

What is Beauty? Or, On the Aesthetics of Wind Farms - windfarm aesthetics through the lens of philosophy, in Design Observer.

Are Aesthetics a Good Reason Not to Be a Fan of Wind Power? - a nice discussion in Scientific American.

Categories: