PLEM 1909-1959


Our dependance on energy has never been greater. While we may complain about the costs (financially and environmentally) electricity imposes upon us, the fact is that ready access to vast quantities of energy has transformed our lives to an unimaginable degree. Both as individuals and society we are addicted to the stuff. Without it, our technology is worthless junk. Similarly, the utopia promised by pundits of the digital revolution is dead in the water without a reliable supply of massive quantities of electrical power. It truly is one of the essential building blocks of life as we know it today.


Like many other countries, electricity generation in the Netherlands first began at a local level with private companies competing amongst each other for business. But economies of scale meant that this could not last. Originally founded as the Limburg regional electricity company in 1909, the Provinciale Limburgse Elektriciteits-Maatschappij was a semi-state company based in Maastricht. PLEM retained it’s distinct identity until 1992 when it became part of Mega Limagas and later Essent. This book, simply titled PLEM 1909 – 1959, was published to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the company in that year. Overseen by Dick Elffers, and using a lot of top-quality Dutch photography talent of the time, this book is an excellent example of that particular country’s talent for combining various design elements to produce something greater than the sum of its parts. The various aspects of the design and more background about the individuals involved can be found on the excellent Bint Photobook site.


So how do you visualise something invisible like electricity? Photography is great at showing tangible objects but once the subject matter becomes more vague and abstract then you need to come up with a new strategy. In terms of electricity, the obvious answer is to focus on the production and consumption sides (the power station and the person using the electricity). Unlike the invisible products of work today (e.g. data) large scale electricity generation requires imposing industrial structures and lots of machinery. This is visually impressive when recorded on camera. It is then a relatively straightforward process to contrast these images with photographs of the banal domesticity of the everyday user as they bask in the glow of the power generated far away.


For a designer, how do you make your book stand out from the crowd? How do you show us something different about a subject that has been done many times before? Simultaneously, you also have to ensure that the people funding the book are happy with the final result. This can be a challenge when it comes to corporate publications as, usually, the people who sign off on the book are not particularly visually literate. So as a designer you have to bring them with you rather than suddenly present them with a final book which might not meet their expectations. The company will have it’s own agenda and reasons for producing a book of this nature which a designer must be aware of. As long as the agendas of both the designer and the company are compatible, then the project has a good chance of working out successfully. Otherwise there will be problems.


Roughly about a third of the book is devoted towards the historical aspects of the company. There are the usual introductory texts by the corporate bigwigs extolling the virtues of the company and the great strides it has made over its fifty years of operation. As this is a company that prides itself on its roots in the local community, the positive impact they have had on the area is heavily emphasised in this introductory section. The book even starts with the Limburg anthem (Limburg mijn Vaderland) also composed in 1909. Electricty generated by PLEM is presented as being at the heart of all the great modernising strides the region has made since the early part of the century. Graphs and charts show the expansion of electricity production over those years while images of street lights demonstrate the tangible benefits of electricity for the people. Picturesque colour images of farms and the agricultural landscape are used to stoke both regional pride and also convince readers that modernisation would not pose a threat to their regional identity and the traditions they hold dear.


This first section of the book appears in a muted colour palette – the archival images are stiff and static, heavily laden with serious looking groups of dignitaries. Dark suits and respectability predominate. This is the past. Once they become established, corporations, then as now, like to tell their foundation myths. These usually take the form of a small group of courageous visionaries, the struggle to be taken seriously, the overcoming of obstacles, the battling of challenges, the gradual growth of the company and it’s ultimate success as a leading player in the field. These stories are usually just that, stories. But they are used to get new employees to buy into the corporate culture of the organisation in order to try to make them feel as if they are part of something larger and that they too are helping to create history. These foundation myths also add a layer of gravitas and tradition to an organisation that makes them appear trustworthy.


We now move on to images of the landscape transformed by electricity. Streetlights illuminate the picturesque buildings and streets of the region as the old and the modern harmoniously come together in order to produce a better future for all. Blocks of colour are used to produce a sense of energy and dynamism that was absent in the previous historical section of the book. Here, electricity poles run alongside roads bringing power to towns and villages.The metal skeletons of pylons loom above the camera lens as the viewer gazes skywards in awe to the immense power that courses through the cables above their heads.


The quasi-religious symbolism continues in the next section of the book, which deals with the construction of the Masscentrale Power Station near Roermond. Built between 1951 and 1960, this “temple of energy” was PLEM’s greatest achievement to date and they were keen to show it off. The cult of technological progress that has dominated Western thought for at least two centuries finds expression in this imposing structure. Size matters and by emphasising the scale of the plant they are signifying just how important the company has become, as well as the awesome nature of the power harnessed by mankind. Unlike the historical section of the book, which consisted largely of the upper managers huddled around bits of new machinery looking dignified, the images in this section reflect the social changes of the time. Now it is workers and builders who dominate the photographs. Like many of the communist publications I have reviewed on this blog, much of the imagery has a distinctly heroic quality to it. Once more the use of blocks of colour with photographs adds a sense of energy and dynamism to the narrative. A vast new building emerges from the ground. Again, the images used emphasise the immensity of the project, designed to produce a sense of awe in the viewer as we gaze in wonder at this immense cathedral of power.


Now we delve deep into the bowels of this vast structure. Images of pipework and circuit boards form geometrical patterns, abstract images of technological progress and power. Similarly, substations stand ready to convert and transmit this raw power on its journey to the final user. The overprinting of black and white images with blocks of colour again add vibrancy and interest to what would otherwise be relatively straightforward industrial images.


The final section of the book brings it all back home with images of industrial equipment, trains and factories all powered by electricity, helping develop the industrial base of the region. A simple but effective message is sent: with electricty comes progress and a better life for all. Limburg’s happy future is assured. By repeatedly using blocks of colour, the book produces a sense of rhythm that assists the narrative flow and connects the various sections together.


The late fifties was a time of hope. Postwar austerity and the all-consuming effort to rebuild the shattered lives and countries left in ruins had largely been completed. Optimism returned. Modern technologies promised new ways of living and working that would produce a better world. Clean and cheap electricity would fuel the labour saving devices that promised to consign everyday drudgery to the past. Colour and brightness has returned to life.


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