Monday, May 24, 2004

Glass and steel

Yesterday, at 6.57 in the morning, a section of Terminal 2E at Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport collapsed, killing four people. At 6.45, cracks were noticed forming in the structure and the area was cleared of passengers. However, the police hadn't finished the job of cordoning off the area when a second crack appeared and the structure collapsed "comme un château de cartes".

It is a human tragedy, but also a disaster for Aeroports de France (ADP), the company which has managed the rapid development of the airport over the past few years. Roissy is the centrepiece of the French aviation industry and the hub airport of Air France. Airports have always been symbols of technological development and civic pride. Named after presidents, they reflect a nation's ambitions. When airports collapse, it is not a good sign.

So what happened? Well apparently there was a design failure. There are no reports of sabotage. According to the papers this morning, the development of Roissy has been carried out too fast. The decision to build an additional control tower was taken at the last moment and the construction work was 'chaotic' and cost 45% more than expected.

So, there were shortfalls in planning, structural engineering and costing. What else could go wrong? Well, luckily not the architecture. The architecture at least was okay. Design is what the French are good at. It's the realisation of the design that has let them down. Following the incident, the architect Jacques Rougerie was asked if there was a risk in creating buildings that were always lighter, more transparent, glassy. No, he said, absolutely not. This doesn't put in doubt the general principal of high-tech structures.

The French love these light, glassy structures, and Roissy is a good example. Gentle sweeping spaces that curve above your head and arc away into the distance in front of you. When you walk through the halls, you feel as if you are in the cockpit of a vast aircraft, or inside a glass helium balloon perhaps. Terminal 2 is a far cry from the 70s concrete hell that is Terminal 1, with its joyless design, endless circling perimeter walkway, diorientating elevators and hopeless directions.

Modern architecture has become a major public interest in France thanks to the successes of buildings such as the Pompidou Centre, L'Institute du Monde Arabe and the Grande Arche at La Défense which have excited the public imagination. Last year, the architect Jean Nouvel had a popular exhibition at the Pompidou which was an eye-opener in terms of the ambition of modern architects. There were plans to hollow out mountains and put buildings inside. Vast glass complexes jutted out over lakes. But the most inspiring aspect was the way in which the ideas were communicated, using computer generated imagery and 'concept art' type presentation techniques. It seemed that if you could dream it, you could build it.

And perhaps therein lies some of the problem. Perhaps there is a gap between the dream and the reality. Our ability to imagine grows at the same rate as our ability to grow economically, but there is a problem on the ground, for the people who must build the dream, to keep up.

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