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The School of Life

Part 2 Project 2009
Paul Westwood
University of Sheffield | UK
The Great ‘Staycation’ of 2009; the predicted mass shift amongst Britons towards domestic holidays; fueled by recession and the weak value of the pound, has this summer become a reality. But the financial crisis masks some of the larger, more long-term problems with the aviation industry, particularly the growing environmental concern regarding air travel.

The School of Life, thesis project explores how the recently abandoned Sheffield City Airport (itself a casualty of the recession) may be reinvented into a holiday destination of sorts.

The project aligns itself with some of the least intrepid but most thought provoking travel authors of recent history. The Villa of Des Esseintes, (from J.K. Huysmans 1884, novel A Rebours), who furnished a room to facilitate his own travel fantasies (without leaving his arm chair) provides the ideological standpoint for reconsidering the idea of a holiday.

My client, ’The School of Life’ are an unusual travel agency, who dispute the notion that our holidays ought to be about escaping reality. They offer sojourns to the neglected corners of everyday life, airports, service stations, motorways, and the sky. They question many of the fundamental principles of the notion of the package holiday and offer a superficially modest yet philosophically considered alternative.

My proposals consist of three main elements, firstly the relocation of Sheffield Aero Club back to the airport, purely as a Baudelairian spectacle, secondly the provision of a wind-powered electric car service station, and thirdly, inspired by Des Esseintes the programmatic overlapping of the more esoteric holiday facilities, the artificial beach, the cloud room, hotel rooms and the subterranean spa.

Paul Westwood

Prosaically, the project is a new motorway service station for the M1, which is cross programmed with a base and airstrip for a local flying club. Environmentally, it consists of a wind farm that provides power for the recharging of electric cars using the motorway. Poetically, the project is an exploration of our relationship to the exotic and the notions of virtual travel that were first set out by writers such as Baudelaire and Huysmans and more recently examined by Alan de Botton in his book ‘The Art of Travel’.

The site is Sheffield’s former airport, which was recently closed, leaving the 1,200m long runway without any use. The architectural response is a bold, tilted box, sited at one end of the runway. It is positioned to maximise the drama and spectacle of flight for the users of the service station, whilst they consume their burger and fries. The operations of the flying school lend the building the air of the romance of travel, without the need to actually go anywhere. Discreetly concealed within the building is the accommodation of the School of Life, with its hotel rooms, sky space and artificial beaches, all bringing aspects of the exotic into the project in ways that are inspired by Huysman’s Des Esseintes, who furnished his villa in order to satisfy his own fantasies of travel.

The strength of this project lies in its effortless synthesis of the everyday, the romantic and the exotic, into a bold and dynamic form. The initial diagram has been carefully refined and articulated through a large series of exploratory models that have lead to the elegant plan and exquisite section of the final design. The tilted box is lifted to provide hangar space for light aircraft and pushes into the ground to create space for a lecture theatre. The roar of aircraft engines is deliberately filtered through the more public parts of the building. The grand staircase flows up through the interior, culminating in the dramatic spectacle of a plane ascending into the air.

Mr Russell Light
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