Article – Sep 18, 2013 – Machine or Sculpture in the Garden?

Published as “OP ED: Machine or Sculpture in the Garden?” Wellington Times, September 18, 2013, p. 11.

 Machine or Sculpture in the Garden?

by

Henri Garand

 Aesthetics is often a handy club in the dispute over wind energy development.  Whenever anyone raises some economic, environmental, or health concern, proponents claim it’s really a disguised objection to the sight of wind turbines—and “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.

The cliché may serve the political aims of the wind industry, but it slights the complexity of the aesthetic and cultural reasons why not everyone welcomes wind turbines.

Aesthetic History and Machines

A survey of art history like Umberto Eco’s History of Beauty (2004) shows that human taste involves more than psychological responses to factors like color, shape, and texture.  It reflects inherited cultural attitudes, for example, towards Nature and machines.

When windmills spread across Europe in the 12th-14th centuries, they elicited few aesthetic protests. Windmills brought major economic benefits by reducing the animal and human labour of grinding grain.  They rose no higher than tall trees, and they hid the huge milling machinery inside structures of wood and later of stone and brick.   Only a mad character like Don Quixote could see them as monstrous.  In fact, after windmills were superseded by the steam-driven mills of the Industrial Revolution, the surviving ones became objects of nostalgia.  

This attitude was in sharp contrast to what poet William Blake famously called the “dark satanic mills” that transformed English cities and countryside during the 18th and 19th centuries.    Romanticism exalted Nature at the very time landscapes were sacrificed to large-scale factories, railroads, and urbanization.   Victorians sought an uneasy compromise:  embellishing iron works like bridges with organic decoration and delighting in luxuriant English gardens.  The Machine Age did not triumph, with its credo of “form follows function,” until the early twentieth century, and its influence on the visual environment remains chiefly industrial and urban.

Representation vs. Reality

These cultural attitudes play a part in the design and siting of wind turbines.  Many Canadians have formed their opinions from photographs, taken in good light or atmospheric conditions, of solitary turbines or groups located in bare fields, deserts, and oceans.  Seldom is there any perspective on size, and rarely are houses included.   Nothing distracts from the white steel towers and slim fibreglass blades, the elegance of engineering.

The turbines resemble installations, like Alexander Calder mobiles, in a sculpture garden.  Consequently, the images do not prepare people for day-to-day living with turbines as close as 550 m.

In a real life situation the aesthetics of harmony and proportion figure prominently.  According to landscape architects, turbines with hub heights of 80 m and blades of 30-50 m are visually dominant features within two km and important features as far away as four to five km.  They stand five to thirty times higher than churches, farmhouses and barns, lilac bushes and oak trees.

A single turbine or a small group might be regarded as an acceptable or even desirable contrast with flat topography, but an irregular scattering of turbines competes with a pastoral and heritage landscape like Prince Edward County’s.   The solitary CNE turbine may not disrupt Toronto’s cityscape; Wolfe Island’s thick forest of turbines, however, has profoundly altered Kingston’s harbour view.   Aesthetics comes down to an appropriate choice between organic and mechanical forms in natural and built environments.

Cultural Choices and Symbolism

The preferred choice is by no means certain.  In the County the proposed wpd wind project does not have a remote location.  It spreads through areas with varied settlement and agricultural uses:  cottages and homes on Lake Ontario, old farmsteads, and 19th-century villages; pastures, woodlots, and vineyards.

Although long-term residents may have grown up with natural surroundings, they are also used to living beside utilitarian structures like Quonset huts and metal storage bins.  On the other hand, new residents may be seeking natural sights after years of exposure to an urban environment.   In neither case can they truly appreciate the visual impact until the wind turbines are erected.

Perception is further complicated by symbolism.  The typical photograph showing one rotor blade at the apex of rotation and two at the sides suggests a cross. When in motion the blades describe a circle.

In advertising wind turbines are common shorthand for renewable energy.  For many they represent a green ethos and the promise of sustainable development.

For others, however, the turbines arouse stronger feelings than an odd sculpture in a town square.  They epitomize technological inefficiency, government mismanagement and waste, and political repression.  Since their movement and size makes them impossible to ignore, they may seem an aesthetic tyranny when projects have been imposed on communities. 

Such symbolism makes for irreconcilable differences over their “beauty” or “ugliness”.  People literally cannot see them for what they are because of the cultural perspective we bring to aesthetics. 

Yet it’s hard to believe that, once erected, nearly 40 wind turbines will be regarded as an enhancement of the County’s own quiet beauty.   Local residents will be in for a surprise because the developer of the White Pines project has not provided a Visual Impact Assessment.  The Renewal Energy Approval process doesn’t require one.

In 20 or 50 years, if wind turbines are still standing, will they be seen as embodying green hopes or the folly of a failed industrial strategy?  Will they be exquisite models of engineering and design or grotesque intrusions in pastoral settings?

The outcome and the highly visible political legacy are not easy to foresee when the underlying cultural attitudes have been in conflict for more than two centuries.   But cliché thinking doesn’t help the debate.

Henri Garand, M.F.A., lives on Big Island, currently spared from the sight of wind turbines.

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