Thursday, 24 June 2010

Air Rage

Image from my Flickr stream.

Filed under "I really shouldn't read the Standard, still it's right there on the seat next to me and sometimes Kieran's in it BLOODY HELL SO ANGRY":

The new owner of Gatwick today dropped London from its name and pledged to wipe out all links with its BAA past.
The name will be written in the form of an italicised “signature” rather than in the uncompromising “Rail Alphabet” Helvetica font used by BAA since the Sixties.

Mr Wingate said: “We have done the logo in the form of a signature because we want the airport to feel very personal and that we absolutely care about passengers having a good time going through the airport.”

The new owner, investment fund Global Infrastructure Partners, unveiled a new look that it claims will “rekindle the original spirit of taking a flight — we want to make people enjoy it.” Much of the change is cosmetic but aimed at finally ridding Gatwick of its state-owned Seventies heritage.

"Gatwick drops London in £1.5bn revamp", 21 June 2010

The point of Helvetica is that it is neutral. It is extremely legible. It is not subject to cultural bias, regional variation, and the vicissitudes of fashion and corporate identity. It is designed, painstakingly designed, to create standardised signage. Standardisation might not be exactly sexy but it is extremely useful if you want to avoid the world being a confusing racket. "Uncompromising", damn right it is. It is also international, part of the global language of airports, flight, travel - exactly the kind of spirit that this cloth-eared rebranding exercise apparently wants to tap into.

Sure, it's only the logo, there's no indication that they're going to sweep away the whole glorious sign system developed by William Pereira and others. But that crack about "ridding Gatwick of its state-owned Seventies heritage" shows the dangerous prejudices in play. The spangly, gaudy, deliberately confusing world of the British Corporate Pleasure Environment yawns wide, an aesthetic scraped out of the more alarming malls and bars. Let a thousand defective touchscreens blossom. I had a disheartening experience while travelling through Heathrow Terminal 4 last month - wanting to check if my gate had been called, I the back of a cluster of flatscreens attached to a pillar. Thinking "Aha, flight information", I walked around to see the screens - and they were all ads. They were all ads on the next pillar as well. I had to hunt for info. The departure board is to the airport user what the altar is to the cathedral congregant. The boards should be magnificient, huge, dramatic centrepieces of the lounge, and reproduced on a smaller level everywhere in every side chapel, shop and cafe. That list of names! The world awaits! It's beautiful as well as useful. But I had to hunt. and you can see the same dreary though processes at work - "what this place needs is to be much less like an airport, and much more like Westfield".

The plans, they say, hearken back to the golden age of plane travel. I've been thinking and reading about that golden age recently, partly in connection with my article about the Boeing 747 in the July Icon. This golden age certainly existed - it ended when air passengers chose inexpensive mass transit over luxury boutique travel. That is a choice worth remembering. But one of the characteristics of golden age was service, something that I do not feel will be well served by scrapping check-in desks and replacing them with touchscreens. It might be very efficient - I've had mixed experiences with self-checkin - but it's not exactly personal.

"We want to make people enjoy it" - that note of coercion is a little worrying. And this emphasis on pleasure is equally unsettling. It's the Corporate Pleasure Environment again, endlessly pestering you to relax and chill out and treat yourself and so on, forever reminding you of what a great time you're having and see how it's just like Sex and the City until all you want is to be left alone. Want to make people happy, Gatwick? You can't. Want to help people enjoy the airport? Minimal queuing. Clear signage. Information accurate and prominent. Clean. Efficient circulation. Plentiful seating that you don't have to pay for by buying a coffee. Your italicised logo isn't going to make the tiniest jot of difference to anyone.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Video Screens Announce Departures

Las Vegas airport. Image from my Flickr stream.

On the airport after the arrival of the Boeing 747:

Something was lost. In the jumbo era passengers became oblivious to the outside world, moving through concourses that were double-glazed and super-insulated to muffle the roar of jet engines. Conventional points of entry and transition disappeared. Glass doors opened automatically at the command of seeing-eye photo-electric cells. Moving sidewalks, escalators, and baggage conveyors whispered hydraulically. Departure lounges became shadowless holding tanks, saturated with Muzak and fluorescent lighting. Video screens, first introduced in the 1970s, glowed dimly with arrival and departure times. The experience was ersatz and vacuum-sealed from beginning to end.

From Naked Airport by Alastair Gordon, Chicago, 2004 (partially quoted in my article on the 747 in this month's Icon).

On the tanatorio, a Spanish morgue:

One might expect this to be a solemn place. But, with vigils going on for up to twenty-six dead, all neatly arranged in adjoining cubicles, the tanatorio bustles like a railway terminus. First-timers might think they have stepped into a small airport terminal. Groups of people mill about. A TV monitor tells you which corpse is in which cubicle. A cash dispenser sits in the middle of the foyer. Another machine produces prepaid phone cards. There is, inevitably, a large bar-cum-restaurant doing brisk trade. I even have friends who, because of its extended opening hours, have used it for the last drink on an evening out. A new tanatorio, I notice, has just been opened in Madrid. It advertises on the radio with the slogan "the most modern tanatorio in Europe".

From Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett, Faber, 2006

Friday, 11 June 2010

BP: Beyond Pensioners

As oil continues to gout into the Gulf of Mexico, another victim has made an appearance beyond dead fish and poisoned pelicans: British pensioners. According to yesterday's Daily Telegraph, the spill - and the American government's reaction to it - is hurting them terribly. "BP's position at the top of the London Stock Exchange and its previous reliability have made it a bedrock of almost every pension fund in the country, meaning its value is crucial to millions of workers," the paper reported. The story continues with these chilling quotes:

"We need to ensure that BP is not unfairly treated – it is not some bloodless corporation," said one of Britain's top fund managers. "Hit BP and a lot of people get hit. UK pension money becomes a donation to the US government and the lawyers at the expense of Mrs Jones and other pension funds."

Mark Dampier of the financial services company Hargreaves Lansdown said: "[Mr Obama] is playing to the gallery but is not bringing a solution any closer. Obama has his boot on the throat of British pensioners. There is no point in bashing BP all the time, it's not helpful. It is a terrible situation, but having the American president on your back is not going to get it all cleared up any quicker."

Neil Duncan-Jordan, of the National Pensioners Convention, said: "Most ordinary people would not have thought that BP would have an impact on their retirement but if BP's share price goes down then their pension pot goes down.

"Most of those pension funds are invested in the default option, which is stocks and shares, and so if BP goes down the pan then their pension pot goes down the pan."

Can a pot go down a pan? That pressing question aside, this whole argument is nonsense. Pensions might be affected by BP's tumbling stock price, but pension funds are in the business of risk management - that's all they do, or all they're supposed to do, just as BP is supposed to manage oil drilling is a reasonably responsible manner. The implication of these remarks is that BP should be immune from political or popular sanction or criticism, and to politically hurt BP is to launch an assault directly on pensioners. This is the logical outcome of the worship of "the markets" - a form of corporate fascism, the conflation of corporations, state and people, in which an attack on the FTSE or its larger members constitutes a direct assault on the Volksgemeinschaft.

The outraged tone taken by the fund managers here is extremely familiar. It's the voice of Milo Minderbinder, a character in Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Milo runs a syndicate, which comprises a number of generally crazy money-making schemes, and in which "everyone has a share". An elegant piece of circular logic allows the syndicate to get away with almost anything:

"Milo, how do you do it?" Yossarian inquired with laughing amazement and admiration. "You fill out a flight plane for one place and then you go to another. Don't the people in the control towers ever raise hell?"

"They all belong to the syndicate." Milo said. "And they know that what's good for the syndicate is good for the country, because that's what makes Sammy run. The men in the control towers have a share, too, and that's why they always have to do whatever they can to help the syndicate."

"Do I have a share?"

"Everybody has a share."

Everybody has a share, so what's good for the syndicate is good for everybody, what's good for the syndicate is good for the country, and what's good for Milo is good for the syndicate. Why, anything else is simply unpatriotic. Even the Germans have a share, so eventually the syndicate is being paid by the Americans to attack a bridge while being paid by the Germans to defend it. Milo starts flying German planes, and is horrified when an effort is made by the American authorities to confiscate those planes.

"Is this Russia?" Milo assailed them incredulously at the top of his voice. "Confiscate?" he shrieked, as though he could not believe his own ears. "Since when is it the policy of the American government to confiscate the private property of its citizens? Shame on you! Shame on all of you for even thinking such a horrible thought!"

"But Milo," Major Danby interrupted timidly, "we're at war with Germany, and those are German planes."

"They are no such thing!" Milo retorted furiously. "Those planes belong to the syndicate, and everybody has a share. Confiscate? How can you possibly confiscate your own private property? Confiscate, indeed! I've never heard anything so depraved in my whole life."

His tone of voice is familiar, isn't it? It's the same aggrieved wail of the fund managers, the banks, the hedge funds. Eventually, the syndicate bombs its own airbase, and Milo has gone too far. He is made to reimburse the government. But the syndicate has been making unearthly profits, and everyone benefits, and the government is a democracy, and therefore made up of people who have already benefited, so really the government doesn't need to be reimbursed and the benefit has already gone to the people. Even when it's fouling its own nest and screwing everything is sight, the syndicate is good for everybody and good for the country. That's the Minderbinder logic being used by the defenders of BP.

Update: This post has been reproduced on the New Statesman's Cultural Capital blog, with the volksgemeinschaft stuff trimmed out.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

I Am One

Today is Spillway's first birthday. Looking at the stats, I see I've posted more than 60 times, so managed to keep to my target of "about once a week". Yippee. A definite highlight was being among the Bygone Bureau's best new blogs of 2009. More of the same sort of stuff to come. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Belgrade Pomo

I was in Belgrade, Serbia, last week for Belgrade Design Week. It's a brilliant place and I'll try to do a longer blog post on some of the interesting buildings I saw within the next few days. Meanwhile here's one oddity which I found particularly provocative. (My thanks to Murphy for suggesting that it get a blog post to itself.)

While taking a directionless stroll through the back-streets around Knez Mihailova, a main shopping street, an interesting glass silo caught my eye.

I went in for a closer look (clik on any of these images for a larger version) and found a rare bit of Serbian post-modernism attached to it. Belgrade doesn't have a terrific amount of architecture from the 1990s, for the obvious reasons, and consequently not a lot of pomo. But here it is in all its glory, completely with tiny balcony, wilful asymmetry, classical detail and a zigzag like a page layout from The Face in the 1980s. It's also clearly taking cues from the Tito-era apartment block on the left. But this is nothing.

Wait a second ...


Now that's something. Generally speaking this kind of plastic-glass, styrofoam-masonry jokey pastiche makes me want to vomit my eyes out, but there's a lot going on here. Look at the way the roofline of the glass atrium pick up on the pediment of the window above the cornice. Just below the cornice, look at the leftmost of the smaller windows. See the way the square of the window-panes in that window merges with the larger panes of glass in the atrium structure. Boss. It's a horrible building, but at the same time there's a lot of enjoyment to be had from its layers. I certainly stopped and stared for quite some time.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Heathrow Free Zone

Noise footprints around Heathrow. Image from the BBC.

The proposed third runway at Heathrow airport has been scrapped, and there will be no expansion at Stansted or Gatwick. Viewed purely in environmental terms (as it probably should be) this is the right decision, and hopefully it will increase economic pressure on the coalition government to do something about the lamentable state of rail travel within the UK (hollow, cynical laugh). Nevertheless, like most green initiatives, it is mostly just a way of buying us time as we make the transition away from a fossil fuel economy. There will come a time, hopefully in the relatively near future, when kerosene-burning aircraft are supplanted by hydrogen-burning aircraft (or a similarly clean technology). When that time comes, the debate on air traffic, like the debate on road traffic, will start again almost from scratch. We will find that the economic case for a lot of currently very unpopular infrastructure - runways, motorways - is back and stronger than ever. So for Sipson, the village that would have been obliterated to make way for the Third Runway, the reprieve might only be temporary.

So I wasn't surprised to read a letter in the Evening Standard suggesting that homes and public buildings are built around Sipson to make a Third Runway an impossibility forever. It's a bizarre view to take, given that the Sipsonians already complain that their lives are made hell by the airport. Sure, why not move in more residents, plus a load of hospital patients, sixth-formers or whatever? But there's some very strange thinking around Heathrow (and, to a lesser extent, the other large airports - but no airport is problematised like Heathrow, being both huge and embedded in the city).

If we were starting from scratch, Heathrow might not be the best site for London's main airport. However, we're not starting from scratch, and Heathrow has been an unavoidable fact on the ground for half a century. Large jets have been using it since the 1960s. It's horribly noisy, the traffic around the airport is a nightmare, and air quality is low. But this didn't happen overnight and it's not going away - there's no prospect of a technological fix in the short term and the airport's closure is just a fantasy of a few hardcore NIMBYs and green activists.

Given that it's a longstanding and persistent condition, it sometimes troubles me that the problem of noise around Heathrow has not corrected itself “organically”, as people move away. Obviously there are people living inside the Heathrow noise footprint (as illustrated above) who cannot move away because of their economic circumstances – either simple poverty or the knot of obligations and unfreedoms that come with being a “flexible” worker in our economy. But that cannot account for all of the population: many of these areas are prosperous. Presumably there is also a great deal of British stubbornness and inertia involved, not a negative force in itself, but it can come in the form of a peculiar denial of reality – the villagers of Sipson still maintaining their vision of a village idyll long after their Domesday settlement found itself up against the security fence of one of the world's largest airports, surrounded by London. This is understandable in the elderly, but you have to be fairly old to be able to remember life before Heathrow (where the modern jet engine was first heard half a century ago). Alongside this is Britain's bizarre secular religion, the cult of house prices, which holds that the value of one's home must always go up, and that impediments to this divine accumulation of grace are against nature itself.

I don't mean to condemn any of this behaviour, or to say that the people who live around Heathrow have no right to complain because they are free to move away if they please, or because they enjoy the benefits of cheaper housing. The area around Heathrow is a “zone of sacrifice”: the value of the airport to the city and the country at large is so great that the severe loss of amenity in the area around it is easily tolerated by those who aren't resident in its immediate vicinity.

But is there a more creative approach that can be taken to the noise footprint? What we have here is a readymade zone – an area held slightly apart from the rest of the city, with unusual hazards (the noise and pollution) and unusual advantages (the airport itself, its value as an economic engine and transit hub, the vast tangle of infrastructure that surrounds it. This area is ripe for experimentation. The ideas here aren't serious proposals; they're more an effort to show what kind of imagination could be applied to the Heathrow Zone.

Travel launchpad. Give residents within the HZ airmiles, to allow them to get more use out of the airport. Make the neighbourhood a destination for outward-looking youths; tie in with local universities.

Emporium. Limit sale of airfreighted flowers and luxury foodstuffs to the HZ, turning it into a global Covent Garden and destination for seekers of the exotic. Let souks and flowermarkets bloom in Hounslow. If people cannot do without their airfreighted goods, let them at least buy them in the areas impaired by air travel.

Data entrepot. Saturation wifi coverage. Data havens.

Free zone. Reduced restrictions on drugs and vice and incentives for an artistic population to move in, to create a west London Weimar Berlin. Legalise indoor smoking.

Transition burb. In the environs of the headquarters of British aviation, a massive source of carbon emissions, create a chain of neighbourhoods devoted to experimentation and training aimed at a post-fossil-fuel future – government research, but also small-scale architectural and social experimentation, retrofitting houses and teaching useful skills, funded by the airport. The alliance between Sipson residents and Greenpeace during the battle against the third runway might have represented a temporary alignment of interests rather than a lasting sympathy, but perhaps a more general compact could come of it.

Idle speculation, really. Nevertheless, the area around Heathrow is already a zone in a number of important and overlooked ways – it has different rules, different conditions, and an unusual and provocative relationship with modernity. It's a considerable area of interest, one that has under-explored potential.