Making the difference

Attention to detail is everything says Hugh Pearman, from the tabletops on trains to disabled access to buildings. Perhaps the French should take heed.

Just as the guard announced that the driver had told him to tell us that the Eurostar had attained its maximum speed of 300 kilometres an hour, my croque monsieur, complete with its plate, fell on my foot. I swore a little, which plainly shocked the Mormon-looking American family next to me in the buffet car, for whom this was their first ever train journey.

A swift appraisal revealed that the croque monsieur incident was a classic case of misplaced French design optimism. The slippery tabletops in the buffet were lacking the one feature that is essential in any British equivalent. Curious, since I understand this is a British-designed interior. I explained to the Mormons that in the UK we put a lip round the edge of such tables. This detail ensures that plates, cups and so forth, as they dance across the vibrating tabletop, stand at least an even chance of not diving to the floor. They thanked me, and took their snacks back to their seats.

Presumably the Eurostar buffet car had been designed by someone with the pancake-flat, brand-new express railway lines of Northern Europe in mind. Railway lines where smoothness is taken for granted, where plates can be trusted not to take lemming-like leaps into the void. If so, that designer forgot one crucial national characteristic of the French: they love to build new things, but they are bored by the idea of maintenance. Or maybe spending on the track had been slashed in order to meet the public borrowing criteria of the single European currency. Either way, 300 kilometres an hour across the plains of northern France meant a bumpy ride of the kind familiar to anyone travelling Britain’s Great Western at half the speed.

Design detail – or the lack of it – is the level most of us notice things, and it colours our perception of the whole. This extends from three-dimensional design to graphics. To stay with speed for a minute, consider how badly the Williams Formula One racing cars are doing at the moment compared with the all-conquering McLarens. Forget engineering niceties: I say it’s because Williams switched sponsors to a different cigarette company and in the process got itself a god-awful new livery. You used to be able to pick the Williams cars out in the pack. Now they are a mess – predominantly red, but not red like Ferraris are. Red like a badly-designed cigarette packet is. They are strangely invisible. Meanwhile, McLaren, with yet another cigarette firm, has got itself what by F1 standards is a rather subtle paintwork treatment incorporating lots of gunmetal grey, and they look totally purposeful. You see? Give your cars a nightmare livery, and they start to lose races. No-one believes in them. The best paint job wins. Detail again.

I had an hour or so to kill before my meeting in Paris, so I went to the Parc de La Villette with its deconstructionist, Ferrari-red Bernard Tschumi follies, and its Science City made out of huge abandoned abattoirs at the behest of President Giscard d’Estang. What I really wanted to see, however, was the Music City by Christian de Portzamparc, built under the Mitterrand regime at the southern end of the Parc.

Part of Music City is a home for the Paris Conservatoire, effectively a classical music college: but the more photographed bit is a wedge-shaped concert hall complex.

Portzamparc’s big idea there is to wrap generous public space around the auditorium, and make that space permeable to the city outside, so that the whole place becomes like a modern version of a 19th century arcade. The big foyer spirals upwards in shallow steps. Steps which each now sport the aesthetic nightmare of a crude metal ramp for the disabled. Moreover, all but one of the doors to the outside world are now chained up, presumably for security reasons. So the building is no longer a public space and is practically deserted outside of concert hours.

Those ramps – what was going on? This is a new civic building. Did the architect not think that people with baby buggies, let alone wheelchairs, might want to visit Music City? Were regulations non-existent, or ignored? Because making a building readily accessible is dead easy when you’re designing it from scratch, and doesn’t affect the quality of the spaces one jot. Now the place looks ghastly: another case of a simple missing design detail letting down the whole thing. You won’t, of course, see those ramps on any of the published photographs of the building. But then architectural photographs nearly always exclude people anyway.

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