Attempts to make cellphone towers look like trees may or may not work

Cellphone towers are ubiquitous parts of the modern landscape. Trying to make them look like trees…can be interesting.

South African photographer Dillon Marsh‘s compact photo series (all 12 Invasive Species images featured here) is a meditation on the weird, and small, variations of design in tree cellphone towers.

“In certain cases the disguised towers might not be noticed,” says Marsh. “But then an undisguised tower might not have been noticed either.”

An important chapter in the history of tree-shaped cellphone towers was written in South Africa. In the mid-’90s, Ivo Branislav Lazic (who worked for a telecommunications service company called Brolaz Projects) and his colleague Aubrey Trevor Thomas were commissioned by Vodacom to solve the visual pollution problem cellphones presented.

Lazic and Thomas came up with the world’s first palm tree cellphone tower. The Palm Pole Tower, made from non-toxic plastics, was installed in Cape Town in 1996…

Meanwhile, in the American Southwest, fledgling company Larson Camouflage was responding to similar style-sensitive network companies. Larson makes scores of different “trees” but it kicked everything off in 1992 with a naturalistic pine that concealed a disagreeable cell tower in Denver, Colorado. To dress up a cell tower in plastic foliage can cost up to $150,000, four times the cost of a naked mast. Marsh is skeptical about the need for high-tech camouflage.

My first thoughts in seeing these South Africa pictures is that the camouflage doesn’t look too bad. However, the towers/trees are simply too tall and don’t blend into the landscape. This is not a matter of bad design; the tower is taller than everything else.

This gets at a bigger question: why does this infrastructure have to be covered in the first place? We want cell phones but we don’t want to see the technology that it requires? I’m reminded of this sometimes when traveling into neighborhoods in Chicago. In many of these places, there is a tangle of electrical lines, alleys, and poles (street lights, signs, police cameras, traffic lights, etc.). Compared to the Loop or suburban neighborhoods which are more spread out or places where electric lines are buried, this can look ugly. But, it is part of city life and would be quite expensive to eliminate.

This doesn’t mean we have to settle for ugly cell phone towers. But, the alternatives may not be so great either.

Quick Review: Bertrand Goldberg retrospective

The Art Institute of Chicago currently has a Bertrand Goldberg retrospective, the first of its kind. Goldberg is well known in Chicago for several works of architecture: Marina City on the north bank of the Chicago River as well as the Prentice Women’s Hospital, which has been in the news lately because of a discussion about whether it should be preserved.

Here are a few photos from the exhibit:

A few thoughts about Goldberg’s work:

1. His primary design form, concrete cobs or wavy walls around a circular core, are quite unique. However, I can’t imagine any building today being built in this style. This has definitely aged.

2. The exhibit portrayed him as a visionary because of his interest in reviving the city through large, self-contained developments. This sort of sounds like New Urbanism but the scale is quite different as are the aesthetics with large concrete surfaces. This reminded me more of Le Corbusier or the arcologies found in Simcity. The self-contained nature of these developments might stop people from fleeing to the suburbs but it wouldn’t necessarily push them to interact with the wider city.

3. Goldberg is known for a few high profile works but also designed a number of other things as well including lots of hospitals, some houses, public buildings, and household items like chairs.

4. My biggest critique of the exhibit: the buildings and designs are given without context. Take Marina City. It definitely is iconic and interesting. Yet, how did it get built? How was the land acquired and the project pushed through the city government? How did it affect the surrounding neighborhood? What is its legacy beyond its walls? For example, the developer for the project was Charles Swibel, a man well-connected to Mayor Richard J. Daley and an unsavory character when it came to things like public housing. While the exhibit suggested Goldberg was trying to help the city, did he really do so in the long run? What was needed was the perspective of an urbanist who could provide some commentary about the overall effect of these buildings. While the exhibit mainly focused on design elements, it really is also an opportunity to assess how Goldberg’s design helped or hindered American cities.