Saturday, November 29, 2008

School of Life - Heathrow Holiday

I participated in an interesting "holiday" last weekend. I went to Heathrow Airport to attend a class given by the School of Life on Heathrow Airport. The class was led by one of my favorite authors, Alain de Botton (How Proust can change your life, Status envy, The art of travel, ... ). In the class, we looked at airports from several different perspectives, most of them new to me.

Heathrow Airport class photos on my flickr site. Sorry, my camera wasn't working so well and many of the photos are blurred.

We took a walk around the new Terminal 5 (T5 to Heathrow cognoscenti) with Stephen Barratt, one of the architects involved in the terminal's design from Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. He explained how complex airports are to design, particularly on very congested sites like T5. The firm also helped design Madrid's new terminal, which was built on a totally unconstrained site ... the differences are quite extraordinary.

We talked about airline food while eating sandwiches from Gate Gourmet served to first class passengers ... unfortunately they did not provide any Dom Perignon to wash them down. We talked about eating on planes, why? our best experiences? our worst experiences? websites dedicated to food on planes (why not?) ...

Next we had a presentation on airport baggage handling by Edward Quinton, one of the system managers. It was interesting to learn what happens after our bags disappear on that conveyor belt never to be seen again until they arrive on a similar conveyor belt at our destination (hopefully). Quinton also gave us practical advice on how not to lose our bags (e.g. always put your name inside the bag too!).

We went out to visit some of the people who watch planes land and take off. We talked with Craig, a veteran plane-spotter, to learn what is involved and why they do it. They keep track of actual plane numbers, underlining the ones they have seen in books that list all the planes owned by all the airlines. It was a peek inside a unique society.

We learned about the history of Heathrow from Allan Gallup, author of ‘Time Flies: Heathrow at 60’. Then we heard from a representative of Plane Stupid, a group opposed to expansion of Heathrow. The airport owners (BAA) want to build a third runway at Heathrow. Plane Stupid opposes the runway on the grounds that our society needs to fly less. Following the presentation we separated into four groups and role-played different positions regarding construction of the new runway (airport owner, member of Parliament, local citizen, and anti airport activist).

For dinner we went to an Indian restaurant frequented by airport workers, although it didn't really feel connected to the airport. The taxi ride back to our hotel was interesting, we were able to see the new T5 lit up in the night ... cool and impressive. We stayed overnight in the Sofitel luxury hotel at T5. The place was a bit spooky, so quiet and calm, yet a two-minute walk from the airport. Our 'class' met in one of the deserted hotel bars.

On Sunday we discussed how travel can change one's perspective and give you a chance to think about your life. Alain led the discussion that expanded on some aspects of his Art of Travel book. We talked about Edward Hopper's travel paintings and the feelings they generate.

Then we did a couple of exercises, first, observing people and creating short plays around them. After that we completed an 'emotional audit' of T5. That consisted of walking around looking at people and trying to assess their emotions. We marked them on a map and discussed what we saw.

In between these exercises visual artist Dryden Goodwin showed several films he made around the idea of airports. My favorite showed quick images of planes passing directly overhead (at low altitude) ... one was of a Concorde ... so different from all the others.

On Sunday afternoon we discussed airport security with Lee James, a retired security officer and had a presentation from Rev Pascale Ryan, the airport Chaplin. Both quite interesting in the sense that these are people who you never really get to talk with in your normal trip to the airport.

Our holiday ended with a presentation by writer and performer Julian Fox on the connecting bridge between the Sofitel and the T5 parking garage. We sat on the floor and laughed at his stream of consciousness descriptions of trips to airports, different cities, and songs. Fox ended with a song he wrote about the architect of a new airport terminal ... it's always been my dream to build such a building ... please don't change it too much in the next 50-years ...

With the sound of Fox's accordion and slightly off-key voice in my head, I headed downstairs to the inter-terminal train on my way to Terminal 2 and back to Vienna.

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