It took how long?

Richard Rogers’ colossal new Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 – whoops, he put the real one in Spain.

Airports are about rather more than the design of check-in desks and departure lounges. They are about the design of whole cities, whole nations. So let’s get one thing straight. Any new building at Heathrow – even one that is effectively a complete new airport in itself, namely the massive new Terminal Five, opening in March – can only ever be a temporary fix. Everybody knows that the airport is in the wrong place, that it is too small, and that the noise, pollution and danger of forcing planes to fly low right over the capital will get steadily more unacceptable. Eventually, Heathrow will have to close.

The uncomfortable fact is that we will have to build a new airport way out east, something that everyone has been in denial about since plans to do just that were foolishly shelved in the early 1970s. This will upset the very vocal and extraordinarily well-funded protectors of wild birds, because it will involve displacing lots of geese somewhere off the Essex coast. That, however, will be a price well worth paying.

In the meantime, Heathrow is planned to carry on expanding until 2020, thus making a bad thing worse. Terminal Four in the mid 1980s was meant to be the end of it. So they almost immediately started planning T5, with Richard Rogers as architect. Now, with that finally about to open, they have plans to build a third runway to the north, plus a sixth terminal. However, before they do that they will knock down a lot of the original congested cluster of airport buildings in order to build Norman Foster’s “Heathrow East”, which will be our attempt at a suitable national gateway for the 2012 Olympics.

Terminal Five alone is a massive project – a huge work of civil engineering with a light dusting of architecture on top – that has cost £4.3 billion and so could presumably have been funded from the Societe Generale petty cash tin. Rogers first won the competition back in 1989, but planning for it started in 1982. Do I hear you mutter that we could have built a proper, complete new airport somewhere more sensible in that time? Well, of course, if this were China rather than England. In Beijing, they have built a much larger new terminal than T5, designed by Foster, plus a new runway to serve it, in less than five years. I gather they don’t go in much for public inquiries over there.

Having seen the new Beijing terminal, which is over three kilometres long, is shaped like two giant Concordes parked nose to nose, and contains some awe-inspiring spaces, it was inevitable that I was always going to be disappointed by T5, which is a great big glass and steel shed shoehorned into too small a site. That, though, is a little unfair. Since we’re stuck with Heathrow for quite a few more years, and since we have a strong tradition of adapting things rather than starting from scratch (think of the Royal Opera House or the British Museum), we have to judge this place on different terms. Namely: how clever is it at overcoming the problems we insist on making for ourselves?

It’s ingenious, for sure. It may be compact compared to its international rivals, but T5 finally makes Heathrow feel like a serious contemporary airport rather than a tangle of knotted tinfoil tubes. Take that too-small site for a start – which is actually the size of Hyde Park. Rogers’ very first design assumed that there would be lots more land available, and his proposed terminal accordingly sprawled in relaxed fashion across a vast area on just one level. Several redesigns and nearly 20 years later, what we have is effectively a high-rise terminal building stacked on seven levels, plunging deep into the ground to conceal its bulk. The fact that this works is miraculous. But it is just a bit Heath Robinson.

The immense concourse beneath the arched roof on top of the building has quite a grand-terminus feel to it, a 21st century St. Pancras of the air. There are some very dramatic views to be had around the edges, where you can see all the way from top to bottom past the giant robot legs which hold everything up. Once through security, you step down the levels to your departure lounges. There’s a catch, though. It feels like a long way down and it is – and if your plane is parked at the satellite terminal across the apron, you must descend a dauntingly long escalator into the bowels of the earth to catch a shuttle tram. This means that if you arrived via underground in the first place, then you’ve had to climb right up to the top of the hill in order to climb right back down again. All because they wouldn’t give the airport a slice of Green Belt land to spread over.

The architect in charge of the project, Rogers’ long-term colleague Mike Davies, was also responsible for the Millennium Dome, and the two giant buildings – while looking completely different – have plenty in common intellectually. Both respond to uncertainty in the same way, by creating a big container inside which just about anything can happen. At the Dome, this was because nobody knew at first quite what was going to go in it anyway. At T5 – well, it’s pretty much the same deal. Airports are the most fluid environments on earth. Over the past 20 years we’ve seen the mushrooming of airport shops, the arrival of budget airlines, ever-stricter security restrictions, the birth of the monster Airbus A380 and the death of supersonic travel. And those 20 years exactly cover the lifespan of the Terminal Five project. Trying to design it must have been like nailing down jelly. Now, all the stuff inside is freestanding. The different floors don’t touch the walls, so they can be changed at will. It’s a pragmatic response.

What doesn’t work is the building’s other big idea – a 35-metre wide open public piazza between the huge car park/drop off building and the main terminal. Whatever means of transport you arrive by – car, bus, tube or train – you will end up on top of this structure, and then walk across the gulch to the main event. The idea was to create an oasis of calm amid the frenzy of the airport and to avoid the usual tedious business of butting car parks and roads right up against the terminal. As it turned out, this suited today’s security needs. If you can’t drive right up to a terminal, then you can’t blow it up with a car or truck bomb, either. That’s fine – the only problem is that the grand public space envisaged by the architects is already getting filled up with bits and bobs of other buildings. Plus, when you arrive from elsewhere in the world, it means that the first thing you see once you’ve cleared passport control is the towering bulk of a multi-storey car park, right across the canyon in front of you. It’s not exactly lovely.

Could it have been better? Yes, and the better version already exists. To find the national gateway that the same architects – Rogers Stirk Harbour as they are now known – really wanted to design for London, you must fly to Madrid’s Barajas airport, where their excellent new terminal – much the same size as T5, but considerably more charming, with an echo of the undulating roof they originally sketched out for London all those years ago – won them the Stirling Prize in 2006.

Barajas too is multi-level, but it is daringly sliced through with canyon-like lightwells spanned by bridges, so daylight reaches right down to the bottom. At T5 they needed every square foot of available space, so the canyon idea – apart from that big outside one – was abandoned. This makes it rather gloomy in the lower levels, which is where you will arrive. The baggage reclaim hall is like a giant cave. Oddly, this is one of the most successful parts of the building: as man-made caves go it is splendid, with its shimmering stainless-steel columns and its polka-dot ceiling.

So T5 has its moments. In British terms, it is impressive, a modern airport upgrade capable of processing 36 million people a year. But it suffers from the fatal compromise that afflicts nearly all of our great public projects. We know exactly what we’re missing, because they happen to have built it in Spain. The real political and design challenge, however, lies elsewhere. We still need a complete new London airport. Bird lovers of Essex! Your loss will be the nation’s gain.

Text © Hugh Pearman. Photos by Morley von Sternberg, drawing courtesy of Rogers Stirk Harbour. A fuller version of the article first published in The Sunday Times, London, on February 3, 2007 as ” New terminal, old problem”.


Rogers Stirk Harbour, architects:
BAA plc (airports operator):
Genius book on airport architecture:
Morley von Sternberg, architectural photographer: