Fear of flying

... but Maria Smith just can't stop herself checking in

In an ideal world, projects would conclude with the outrageous power and precision of a harrier jump jet, but the reality is more like a 747 barrelling along a spectrum of crappiness, and success is not careering off the end of the runway.

At the beginning of a project we don’t need to be so grounded. We can go forth with the hapless optimism of drinking Guinness at 6.30am in an airport pub. Both we and the client present cheap perfumed versions of ourselves, agree duty free prices, and try desperately to ignore the unique stench of an airport toilet feminine hygiene bin that, deep in our souls, we know foreshadows things to come. 

Stepping over the threshold onto the plane, we pass responsibility for our lives into the hands of the pilot with adolescent acne like a septuagenarian partner hands over projects to junior staff once the wooing boozy lunches are over. In a pathetic attempt to compensate for ignorance, we get a CPD in how to take our heels off before throwing ourselves down an inflatable slide that doubles as a raft, in case we don’t know our duties under CDM. We listen quietly even though we know it’s all drivel. Then before we know it we find ourselves crammed into a constrained position, hurtling along at 160mph, praying the engineers can get us through this. Concept design is noisy and morbidly exhilarating. At this point the tell-tale signs of the crap ahead is all coming at us so fast and furious, like a nightmare version of the flying windows screen saver, we just hold hands, console ourselves that at least we’ll die together, and brace ourselves for detailed design.

A salty, nasty but oddly compelling smell wafts up our nostrils. Is it a fart filtering through the complementary fleece blanket? Is it aeroplane food? Or is it the stench of impending value engineering?

As the seatbelt sign comes off and the engine sounds settle into that grating consistency we can almost forget to hear, the detail design daemons take up their pick-axes and start to chip away at our crass designs. The delightful farce of planning begins. Like the smiling stewards who grin sadistically and for some inexplicable reason command we enjoy our flight – who enjoys their flight?! – planning officers, planning policies, planning committees and all the agents of the planning gods do everything in their power to scupper our plans. Rights to light carve into our platonic forms like safety plastic knives through margarine. Bulky proprietary details scrape against our wilfully naive cardboard model like a skreeky window blind that just won’t shut. Our dumb aspirations are dryly sucked out of our souls, leaving behind designs resembling skid marks in a vacuum toilet. A baby screams, or is it the M&E engineer? A salty, nasty but oddly compelling smell wafts up our nostrils. Is it a fart filtering through the complementary fleece blanket? Is it aeroplane food? Or is it the stench of impending value engineering?

The descent begins. We can’t pop our ears quick enough to keep up with the plummeting budget. Fuel is running low and the exhaustion of being up all night has put that weird vomit taste into our mouths. The end is in sight but the worst is still to come. Landing gear is mobilised. The lights go off. Drastic consequences invade the mind. Our lives flash before our eyes: concepts drawn lazily, building regulations loosely interpreted, project managers chopped up into little bits and buried in a mass concrete foundation. 

Then suddenly, thud! The wheels grind into the runway with the ferocity of a thousand concrete mixers, the wind roars past like the guttural growls of a contractor signing up to outrageous liquid and ascertained damages, the plane jerks back and forth alarmingly like a scaffold just asking to feature in a notifiable incident. We’re on site. We’re thrust forward against our seat belts and the pressure makes us pee a tiny bit. We’re racing along the spectrum of crappiness, careering out of the Stirling Prize zone, out of the RIBA national award zone, out of the RIBA regional award zone, out of the Hot Dip Galvanising Awards zone, right for the carbuncle cup. At some point the balance between the residual momentum of the plane in the air and the engines driving it forward on the runway switches. We stop feeling terrified and start feeling angry. We contemplate the passport control of snagging. We taxi endlessly, waiting for death or practical completion, whichever comes first. Through the window we can see another queue of people waiting to board the next flight, and with the mislaid determination of a teenager vowing never to drink again after their first hangover, we pity those sad little images of our future selves.

Maria Smith is director of architecture and engineering at Interrobang


 

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