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Surrealism is alive at Heathrow


The Alice in Wonderland world of British architecture and planning flies into another mind-numbing year via Heathrow, where the inquiry into Richard Rogers' plan for Terminal 5 shows every sign of making millionaires out of even more planning lawyers than usual. Why come to a speedy conclusion when you can squander £100 million before a sod is dug? So unlike the French; President Mitterrand, when asked how his country managed to produce Charles de Gaulle Airport so fast, responded, 'When you have to drain the pond, you don't consult the frogs.' What we do is consult everybody in sight, pretend that they have been taken by surprise to discover that there is an airport in Hounslow, and then take the same decision anyway.

Alas, it is not just at Terminal 5 where the ghost of Lewis Carroll reigns. Consider if you will the case of a building which is too good to be extended. I quote from the appeal inspector's report (planning permission refused, of course), issued just before Christmas: 'I consider that the proposal would inappropriately detract from the appearance of this exceptionally fine building . . . erection of the proposed extension would spoil the concept of the original building, thereby devaluing what has been acclaimed as a building of world class.'

Thank goodness for the planning system, you may think, protecting masterpieces from the ravages of the uncivilised. The reality is rather different. The architect is Michael Manser. The building is his Heathrow Hilton, which has one of the highest occupancy rates of that chain anywhere in the world. His extension plan was sketched out in his first designs for the hotel. It is hard to glean from his report whether the planning inspector has a pronounced sense of irony, but it must have occurred to him that had the original design been mediocre (like almost every other hotel at Heathrow), he might have welcomed a stylish addition. As it is, the message to clients seems to be: employ good architects at your peril.

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