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Martin Pawley: humble pie in a giant setting

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'PRISON FOR DISRUPTIVE PASSENGERS!' screamed the front page of British Airways News. And at Waterside, home of 3000 ba employees at Heathrow, the implied threat seemed more appropriate than the anodyne talk delivered by the building's architect last week. Not only were some of the invited audience forced to run the gauntlet of a runaway firehose-strength fountain before they could get into the building, but others who sampled the hospitality of the bar found difficulty in navigating the architect's treacherously undulating cobbled paving afterwards.

When things had settled down, Lord Rogers (wearing dandy moccasins) introduced Niels Torp (wearing a kind of East German suit) as 'the human face of Modernism'. The proof, said Rogers, was that ba chief executive Robert Ayling 'has no office at Waterside, only a table in the restaurant'. Of Waterside itself, Rogers vouchsafed, 'It is a magnificent building, built on brown land. Everyone who comes here comes away impressed,' adding hurriedly, 'impressed in a good way'. No one could fail to be on-message for what was to follow.

When Torp came to the rostrum, he told the audience he liked being called a 'soft' Modernist, because he liked 'warm and funny forms'. He then talked through the evolution of Waterside with the aid of slides. He started out with images of the fields, cows and barns that had been on the site before, then moved on to Oxbridge colleges as inspirational havens of peace and tranquillity. Then came the tired old fire-eaters and flute- players from the Pompidou Centre, universal symbols of ok urban life.

'The plan of Waterside is the plan of a village,' said Torp. A village that avoids 'dangerous modern open spaces' by internalising them into its main 'street' and 'alleys', which really are streets and alleys, because behind their facades there are real office workers. If you do not integrate people and buildings in this way, he warned, 'people never get to know one another', and 'in the city you will get stabbed or raped'.

The audience sat up at this; in the event, it turned out to be the high point of the lecture. After it, Torp changed tack, talking about the creche that he had wanted because 'it would be nice to have children walking in the street', but hadn't been able to get. Then he praised two Waterside workers he had seen talking on a landing for ten minutes, who were, he insisted, working the whole time. Then followed a homily about not treating people like animals ('you have to give them daylight'), another about seniority ('there is no hierarchy here, everybody has the same value'), and finally a word for the directors ('even the boardroom is friendly').

An exchange of precious gifts ended the evening, followed by tumultuous applause, but not everyone was impressed. One famous architect mumbled bitterly: 'I can never do that humble stuff. I've tried, but I just can't do it, not even for ten minutes. That's why I never win any competitions, I suppose.' Probably he was right.

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