Sunday, September 02, 2007

DIARY 42 - Arrivals & Departures

I have yet to encounter a European airport that remotely resembles an English one. Stansted Airport has a beautifully designed shell, to walk into it should be like entering a large open and airy tent, a cool, spacious place you're instantly at ease with and can find your way around. Instead you arrive into a visually confusing entrance, so much demands your attention as you're barraged by information and a layout that isn't instantly comprehensible. After check in you quickly find yourself ushered into a cramped bazaar, under retail duress in very tawdry looking circumstances. What is worse is that you have to take half your clothes off in public, be x-rayed, your shoes scanned and the privacy of your luggage invaded, before you even get to it. It wasn't worth the wait.

Having said goodbye to my luggage for an hour or two, I waited for my plane to be ready to board, it was already gone 5 am and the retail malls were just stirring into life. In English airports shops are crammed into the smallest of spaces, to maximise rental income, which creates a pokey and oppressive sense of space. The piped music and flashy shop fittings remind one of a tart, all lip gloss and heavily applied eye shadow, trying hard to be alluring but ending up being vulgar and repulsive.

Once the flight gate was open I was off, I couldn't wait to get out of that trashy corral. Just a quick dash to the loos and then on to my departure lounge. An atmosphere surrounds the layout of Stansted, it feels like an environmental experiment which, being only temporary, will soon be replaced by a permanent version that will make more sense. This feeling extends to the toilets and the departure lounges. Whilst I sat looking bleary eyed around at my fellow early risers, it dawned on me why this was - both spaces are constructed from exactly the same materials. My departure lounge looked for all the world as if it were formed from recycled portaloo cabins. One could readily expect signs apologising, not for the inconvenience, but for looking like one.

Some interior design decisions confound logic and experience; knowing the volume of travellers passing through a busy airport like Stansted, what self respecting designer thinks its a good place to lay down carpet. Carpets that are stained from all manner of liquid spillages ( speakable and unspeakable ) ,have ground into them dust, fag ash and random spits of gum, the pile crushed then formed into wrinkles and rucks from the ceaseless barrage of luggage trolleys dragged across them. Carpet doesn't make an airport any quieter or a cosier place to be, it just transforms it into a grim, grubby, and gross place to be. Rip all the carpets up at once and lay some shiny linoleum - please!

If you descend from Arrivals/Departures the aesthetics take a turn for the worse. You enter a concrete bunker, where service ducts and pipes move in parallel with passengers trying to find their bus or train platform. It leaves an impression that money ran out and this perfunctory basement was all they could afford. All pretence at creating a comfortable, pleasantly human environment vanishes and you are left in a place where alienation is your only option. Some spaces seem designed for criminal activity, in this case for muggings and a good kicking in the underpass.

Arrivals at Berlin's Schonefeld Airport was a noticeable calmer and more relaxed space. It's not really an international airport, so it hasn't to deal with anything like the same amount of passengers passing through its gates. It is, however, clean, well maintained and uncluttered by the confusing plethora of signs and advertising that frequently blights and bares down on you in English airports. German signs appear to be fewer in number, only telling you essential information, often in easily understood symbolic form. The designers have taken simple and bold decisions, like making advertising spaces go from floor to ceiling across whole walls, and integral to the aesthetic effect of a space. The shopping area is contained to one broad unfussy corridor, the shops consisting of two duty free, a bakers/cafe and a burger king. The appearance is of a spacious, clean and visually pleasant place to be, and what's more, there wasn't a strip of carpet in sight, anywhere! When I see this level of care and attention I despair of being English, we are so often revealed to be clumsy amateurs when it comes to designing effective, efficient and human spaces, it is shameful.

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