The Height of Ingenuity
By NORMAN VANAMEE
of the less glamorous tasks builders face is designing things that
people don't want to have around -- electrical substations, tunnel
exhaust vents, sewage treatment plants. Or cellphone antennas, one of
the most difficult design challenges of contemporary life. Since the
mid-80's, almost 150,000 of these unlovely radio transmitters have
sprung up around the country on poles along roadways and on the facades
of buildings. The construction of new antennas grows at a steady rate
of 12 percent a year; meanwhile, communities have become even less
willing to have them placed on their streets and in their backyards.
Historically, there have been two basic approaches to designing objects
people find unattractive, says Howard Decker, chief curator of the
National Building Museum. ''The most obvious way is to hide them or
make them look as if they are something else,'' he says. Recent
examples of this tactic are the pine-tree-shaped cellphone towers
located on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey. The other is not to
hide the object at all but to fashion it into a work of art. ''I find
the pine-tree towers absurd,'' says Peter Reed, curator of architecture
and design at the Museum of Modern Art. ''Why not just make it a really
beautiful design?'' Both approaches were on display last month at the
Tower Summit and Trade Show in Las Vegas, an annual convention for the
wireless industry. Below, the finalists in the cellphone tower ''most
creative site concealment'' contest.
Tom Grubb: ''I am an artist with a background in engineering. I had
been commissioned to do a piece in Fayetteville for the 100-year
anniversary of flight. Around the same time, Sprint made an application
to build a tower in a location that was in the sightline where my
sculpture was supposed to go. So I went to Sprint with a proposal to
turn the tower into a sculpture. They were talking about how to hide
it, and I was saying, 'Let's look at the tower as a piece of art.' It's
made out of aluminum, stainless steel and bronze cable. It weighs 1,500
pounds and is perfectly balanced on top of the pole. A wind of one mile
per hour can move it. It was very important that I add very little
lateral stress to the tower and also that the sculpture did not
interfere with transmissions. I did the installation in front of an
audience. It's an art piece that just happens to transmit telephone
Saguaro Cactus, Fountain Hills, Ariz.
Steve Meyer, camouflage division manager, the Larson Company: ''Our
company builds themed environments for places like zoos and amusement
parks, but we also disguise infrastructure. Zoning officials have kind
of upped the ante in the level of realism they want to see. We call
what we did with the cactus 'invisible' or '100 percent concealment.'
It's 30 feet tall and made of fiberglass. With the pine trees, the
antennas are placed outside the pole and are only partially disguised
by the branches, but with the cactus, the antennas are actually hidden
in the trunk.''
Roman Catholic Church, Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
Jon Mitchell, national sales director, TeleFlage: ''The church was
going through a renovation, and we were able to work with the diocese
to place antennas inside the spires. They required that we do exact
reproductions, so we removed one of the spires and shipped it to the
West Coast and made a mold from it. There are three antennas and one
G.P.S. device located in the four spires surrounding the main steeple.
We've built many antennas in churches before -- some right into the
cross. The restrictions all depend on what denomination you're dealing
with. The diocese was very helpful. We weren't allowed to work on
Wednesdays or Sundays, but that was about it.''