The popularity of the phrase “style over substance” has led us to assume an inherent and absolute distinction between the concepts. But as the most ambitious works of humanity remind us, force pushes to the limits of its substance, and vice versa. This truth has been expressed in a number of specific ways: architect Louis Sullivan’s maxim “form follows function,” for example, which later attained something like scriptural status among modernists in the mid-20th century. It was in the same era that aerospace engineering produced one of the most glorious proofs of the unity of style and substance, form and function, mechanics and aesthetics: the Concorde, the supersonic jetliner that flew between 1976 and 2003.
No one who flew the Concorde (colloquially but not officially “the” Concorde) has forgotten it. The sharpness and length of the ascent; after-burner boost, pressing you into your seat like a high-performance sports car accelerates; the visible curvature of the Earth and the deep purple color of the sky; the impeccable food and beverage service that transforms flights between New York and London into fine French dining. Several former passengers, crew members and pilots recall these vividly in the BBC documentary Concorde: Supersonic Story. The story is told more briefly in the Vox video at the top of the post asking, “This plane could cross the Atlantic in 3.5 hours. Why did it fail?”
The short answer has to do with business continuity. At supersonic speeds, an airplane leaves a sonic boom behind it, which lowers the Concorde into a transoceanic flight. Its inability to store enough fuel to cross the Pacific left New York-London, which is operated by British Airways, as the only viable route, with Air France also operating between New York and Paris. Because Concorde was an Anglo-French project, launched as a partnership between the two governments in 1962, at the height of the Space Age — and despite huge cost overruns, costs that were effectively irrevocable, since one country cannot withdraw without a word from someone else. other.
With national pride at stake, French commitment was instrumental in making the Concorde what it is today. “Because it goes so fast, the VIPs on the plane don’t need much more, from an English perspective, than a sandwich, a cup of tea and a glass of whiskey,” says Jonathan Glancey, author of the book Concorde: The Rise and Fall of the Supersonic Aircraft. But the Frenchman said, “No, it’s a luxury plane,” and it was ultimately luxury – as well as a streamlined functional silhouette that never ceased to look futuristic – that kept the Concorde going until its retirement in 2003. (The comfort factor can’t be overlooked either, for investment bankers and international celebrities: “It’s always nice to get to New York before you leave,” says Sting, frequent flier.)
“The real flaw in the Concorde is not technological, but social,” wrote Francis Suffford in Book Reviews in London. “Those who commissioned it assumed that air travel would still be, as it was in 1962, something done by the rich: and not the hard-working, hard-working managerial rich, but the gilded upper-class rich,” “the jet set.” Unfortunately, the future lay not in speed but in volume: “The Boeing 747 was as audacious in its leap into the unknown as the Concorde, as extreme in its departure from the norm; nothing so large had ever left the ground before. And Boeing’s gamble paid off.” Supersonic jetliners have re-entered development in recent years, and if any were to come to market they would certainly be doing so with luxuries unknown to the Space Age such as on-demand personal entertainment systems. that reaches machine two?
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts about cities, languages and culture. The project includes a Substack newsletter Books about the City, book The Stateless City: Stroll through 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshallon Facebook, or on Instagram.