Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Tear down this wall...

Berlin Brandenburg barriers in use at Berlin Tegel Airport in 2014
...and rebuild it to legal standards.

Berlin's ill-fated Brandenburg Airport has hit yet another snag. Four years (to date) over schedule and €4.6 billion over budget, Berlin's intended gateway to the world has been an unmitigated disaster.

The latest in a long line of design and management disasters is that 600 walls will have to be reinforced or ripped out and rebuilt to meet fire resistance standards.

Originally scheduled to open in 2011, and having missed four opening dates, the airport board have basically given up on putting a completion date on the thing – reports currently say mid-2017 at the earliest.

Like that back patio you started working on when John Howard was PM, it'll be done when it's done. Except, unlike BER, your incomplete patio probably doesn't suck €17 million from your wallet every month in maintenance costs or involve price fixing, bribery and otherwise bad corruption. And while your incomplete patio may not look the best, it does not occupy 1,470 ha of prime real estate in a European capital city and is unlikely to be damaging your city's economy or its international reputation.

Where to begin with how bad this project (Berlin airport, not the hypothetical patio) truly is...

Firstly, the guy hired to design the airport's fire protection system – the single system that has delayed the project the most – wasn't even a qualified engineer...he was a draughtsman. "Everyone thought I was an engineer", Alfredo di Mauro said, "I just didn't contradict them". Oh great. Luckily he wasn't in charge of anything important, like engineering a system designed to prevent the deaths of potentially thousands of people.

Oh. Wait.

The complete ineptitude of di Mauro, his designs AND the people who employed him cannot be overstated. The system he was supposed to implement was designed to funnel smoke below the terminal building in the event of a fire. Just think about that for a second. When you sit in front of a log fire, where does smoke go? Does it go down? Not usually. Not unless you're camping and had faaaarrrrrr too much weed. So here we had the unqualified di Mauro in charge of implementing a vital safety system that defied the laws of physics.

Bravo.

There is some architectural Magic Alex shit going on here, where someone convincingly claims they can build a thing that defies laws of physics, gets lots of money for it and then delivers, unsurprisingly, a system that doesn't work. This would be forgivable if you're a drug-addled rock star just wanting to give peace and 72-track recording studio a chance, but less so if you're planning a multi-billion dollar piece of infrastructure of international importance.

When inspectors tested the fire systems in 2011 – in preparation for a now hopelessly optimistic opening in 2012 – some alarms failed to activate and, goshdarn shockingly, the laws of physics defying smoke extraction system failed to extract smoke. The inspectors then had a closer look and found high-voltage power lines had been installed beside data and heating cables – a potentially disastrous design mistake if ever there was one.

But don't worry, the airport board proposed a most excellent stopgap solution: 800 minimum-wage workers armed with mobile phones – human fire detectors if you will – who would monitor the airport and, in the event of fire, presumably call a supervisor, yell „FEUR“ and direct passengers to the nearest exit. What could possibly go wrong? This "solution" was wisely rejected. And as if more things couldn't go wrong, the company hired to rectify the fire safety system, Imtech Deutschland, filed for bankruptcy in August.

So where to from here? Well, there are awesome tours of the unfinished airport that I imagine must be something like the lads from Top Gear driving chairs. I was kinda sad I missed out on enjoying one of these tours when I was last in Berlin. Something tells me I'll be able to go on one next time I'm there.

I'm not under the slightest illusion big projects such as an international airport are easy to manage. They clearly are not. But while they are complex, they should be feasible. This airport was definitely feasible. Sometimes projects run over budget and over schedule because of too much ambition or challenging engineering considerations – Santiago Calatrava's projects are perfect examples of these. Berlin Brandenburg Airport has none of this. Its design, while impressive, is not revolutionary nor is it construction difficult. Its calamitous errors are due solely to human error and mismanagement.

Add in to the mix the similarly disastrous Stuttgart21 project, and Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie concert hall and you've got a once-proud (if overstated) international reputation for efficiency and punctuality gravely damaged.

But why am I writing this? I guess because I really miss Germany at the moment, in particular Berlin. It sure isn't a perfect city, but every story that chinks away at the myth of German efficiency is, to my mind, a good thing. Nations are often built around such cultural nonsense which do nothing to enhance actual knowledge of a country. Take, for example, the "easy going" "mateship" of Australia. Just ask an American how "easy going" Australia seems after encountering our finest frontline Border Farce officers when entering the country. Destroying clich├ęs is the first step to real engagement with a nation and its culture. I hope this bit of honesty regarding Germany's current horrendous major projects is a worthwhile glass of truth.

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