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KATHERINE SHONFIELD

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'You take paradise and you put up a parking lot.' Joni Mitchell's words are over 30 years old and no doubt refer to a botch job on the California coast. They express precisely the experience of travel through Stansted airport now, in comparison to just five years ago. Paradise pitches it strong. But Stansted was the best public building in Britain for a quarter of a century.

Stansted's lyrical approach epitomised the magic of architecture. This magic rests in large part in the way architecture can swap a banal experience for a grand one, for which read Gatwick for Stansted. Stansted reached thousands of people the way other buildings can only dream of. Architecture is forever being asked to put over a series of complex messages, which, when the layperson reads of them, leave him or her puzzled. This building unequivocally communicated all of the following: flying is about the inhabitation of the sky; a new experience of light; and the power of human ingenuity to destroy boundaries. These notions did not need an interpreter. They could be palpably experienced by our own bodies within the building.

By contrast, what would Joni report in 1998 had she the misfortune to travel to England? Every opportunity to view the columns as a field has been ruined. The view to the edge and beyond to the sky is frustrated. The powers that govern these things have decreed the perceived commercial needs of Sock Shop, Body Shop and Thug Shop to be paramount, and that close-ups of oversized bargeboards butt-jointed by barbarians are infinitely preferable. There is no clarity left, only a cacophony of predictable jumble. It makes a desecration of its inspiration, the Cordoban mosque, where the forcible insertion of a Christian church looks sensitive by comparison. It is in fact a bloody disgrace.

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