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Modern movement

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En Route: Transport, Technology and Sense of Place At the Hilton National Hotel, Stansted Airport on 13 July

On the evening after this conference there was a tv programme on the first flight to the moon; transport and technology at an optimistic high point in 1969. By contrast, En Route cruised only at an airliner's 11,000m and much of the time stayed earthbound, scrutinising airports and petrol stations.

Organised by Landscape Foundation director Andrew Cross, the choice of Stansted reflected his wish to link theme and venue at such events. Delegates toured the airport at lunchtime; meanwhile (with conscious irony?) the Hilton National was precisely the bland undifferentiated 'anyplace' that mass travel has spawned. Videos by Rachel Lowe and Muf's Katherine Clarke, and extracts from Patrick Keiller's film Robinson in Space, supplemented contributions from six speakers.

The conference promised to explore both the design of transport facilities and 'the cultural experience of travel'. Spencer de Grey gave a rapid survey of Foster & Partners' projects - Stansted, Chek Lap Kok, Bilbao, Canary Wharf - where the common intention was to establish 'a sense of place'. Sharon Zukin of Brooklyn College saw airports as characterised by 'the 4 S's - Size, Sprawl, Shopping, Security'; her focus was on their increasing resemblance to retail malls, as shopping becomes 'our major distraction' in 'the routinisation of flight'. Anne Boddington of Brighton University discussed the landscape implications not just of airport developments but of an aerial perspective on the world, in which our relationship to land, places and cultures is disembodied.

Back on the ground, historian Helen Jones tracked the evolving design of petrol stations, where the opportunity they gave for a new formal language (to be experienced at speed) was qualified by the standardised solutions of oil companies keen to assert their corporate identity. Such formulaic responses were highlighted in David Chaloner's description of Conran Design's work for Shell. Here, the sale of petrol was incidental; the forecourt would be 'the market cross of the future', rife with possibilities for consumption (delicatessen, dry cleaner, Internet access), styled in a European kit of parts from cd that only varied 'above and below the olive belt'.

Thus far the contents of the conference seemed familiar; it was the last speaker, Martin Pawley, who made the most provocative speech. Calling it 'Intimations of Immobility', Pawley looked at events in London in June 1999 when 'the curtain rose on transport apocalypse': gridlocked streets, a bus fleet 'in thrall to heritage technology', the underground close to breakdown. Given a £60 billion investment and 10 years of disruption, London could replace its obsolescent infrastructure - though it wouldn't (aj 8.7.99).

But there was another factor to take into account: the impact of 'short- wave technologies' on transport. Pawley duly sketched a future in which communications replace mobility. A journey to Bristol might be 'as laborious as going to America' but that wouldn't matter: at home 'the simulation of presence and the richness and diversity of supply networks will turn distance into an illusion'.

'As long as I can have an Aston Martin,' said Jonathan Glancey in the chair; and one could sympathise. More crucially, a speaker from the floor stressed the importance of a total sensory experience of different places, the plenitude that (for all its uniformity) travel still can bring. Pawley showed the day's funniest juxtaposition of slides - equating Foster's pedestrianised Trafalgar Square with East Berlin's pre-unification Alexanderplatz ('timeless weirdness') - but his scenario is truly dystopian. A world where we succumb to simulacra has to be resisted. As Pawley jokingly reminded the audience, he has been prescient in the past about technology; this time he must be proved wrong.

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