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There needs to be some letting go if airports are really going to take off

editorial

Madrid is to get a splendid new airport, co-designed by Richard Rogers Partnership, the architect of Terminal 5.

All the indications are that Madrid's will be a far more inspired building than Heathrow's (see building study, pages 28-41). It is certainly being built much more quickly and, even allowing for underlying differences in national construction costs, more cheaply.Why is this? Why have we spent such a long time worrying about Terminal 5, only to end up with a relatively mundane building?

It is not because airport operator BAA isn't trying. It has, famously, worked hard to turn itself into a professional client. It has set up lists of preferred suppliers - everybody from the architects to the providers of ventilation equipment.Everything that can be measured, monitored and controlled, is.On more mundane projects this has paid dividends, in terms of speed, controllability and keeping costs down.Turning construction into a production line, forecastable process is a great way of raising the lowest standards, and avoiding screw-ups.But it is unlikely to generate great architecture.

In some ways comparing Terminal 5 directly with Madrid is not fair.Our planning process is more tortuous.

The site at Heathrow is far more constricted than at Madrid's Barajas, and that led to one of the major reworkings of the Rogers design.But the other difference can be laid at BAA's door. In Spain, the architect had much more freedom. There was a competition, and Estudio Lamela invited RRP to join its consortium. It subsequently assembled the entire professional team, in contrast to the marriages of convenience that the BAA system imposes. Standardisation at Madrid is within the project, the use of modular components on a standard grid.When a building is this big, economies can be made within the project, rather than by picking suppliers from a standard list. Contractors have been free to choose their own methods, and even to learn as they go along - an approach that would be anathema to BAA but that seems to work fine. The lesson from Madrid and Heathrow is, if you want your designs to really fly, you have to loosen control and take risks.

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