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Rise and demise of Concorde: a supersonic flight of fancy

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'Sonic geriatric.' So editorialised The Times in a leader last week, commenting on the decision to take the surviving handful of Concordes out of service after 27 years of crisscrossing the Atlantic at twice the speed of sound. Nor was the newspaper alone in not being able to think of anything more profound to say on the subject. As the flood of lastminute ticket sales has showed, Concorde is, unusually, going to be allowed a dignified retirement - as opposed to being banned from the airways for damaging the ozone layer or playing the villain in a second ghastly fireball. If asked to predict the aircraft's final fate, most people - even after the Space Shuttle Columbia catastrophe - would settle for 'put it in a museum', 'make it the prime exhibit in a supersonic theme park', or prop it up at a dashing angle outside an RAF base. 'Fiery coffin' would have come nowhere. Too much like tempting providence even to mention. Nonetheless, taken as a whole, the Paris Concorde fire and the Columbia Shuttle tragedy must have had some effect upon the decision to take the aircraft out of service.

Tragedies like the sinking of the Titanic, the burning of the Hindenburg and the explosion of the Comet airliners are the creative milestones of technological evolution. Just as the famous journeys of the great discoverers illuminate the study of geography, so do the tragedies of air and space, and the immense appetite for minutely detailed information about them that is always shown by the public, confirm that a technological society is not necessarily a post-historic society and indeed may never be one.

While there are civil and structural engineering disasters to match those of sea and sky, it is hard to call to mind buildings of the modern age that have been both celebrated and deplored in the same inspiring way. The best-known example of this genre must be Paxton's Crystal Palace, built, dismantled, rebuilt and then burned to the ground inside the space of 80 years. But a less well known, and much smaller, project is important nonetheless. The late Reliance Controls potentiometer factory in Swindon is an almost exact contemporary of Concorde. This building, the last collaboration of those two great architects Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, both of whom now have seats in the House of Lords, was completed in 1965 and demolished only 13 years ago. As a building, Reliance Controls was brilliantly simple and brilliantly cheap. Its structure consisted of a welded steel frame composed of only four elements - combined columns and crossheads, main beams, purlins, and external diagonal bracing - and its cladding was the same profiled steel sheet on roof as well as walls. Instead of windows it had a floor-to-ceiling glass wall, and apart from its ground slab no wet trades were involved in its construction.

Like Concorde, Reliance was tremendously popular as an idea. It received considerable publicity when it won the first ever Financial Times Industrial Architecture at Work Award, and from then until its demolition it was a place of pilgrimage for architects and students. The trouble was that, like Concorde, the people who admired it were enthusiasts - the people who worked in it day after day hated it as much as the people who endure the noise of Concorde's engines thundering overhead. When asked in a BBC documentary for his opinion of the building, the firm's managing director, who had worked at Reliance from the beginning, described it as 'a biscuit tin' that heated up intolerably in the summer. He volunteered to push the button to demolish it himself.

Clearly every work of genius leaves space in its wake for improvements.

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