Terminal condition

With Heathrow’s Terminal 5 in meltdown, Hugh Pearman bemoans the lot of the airport designer, who is held in contempt by frustrated passengers

Being a man of low ambition, I regard the highlight of my broadcasting career not as the morning when John Humphrys got my name wrong on Radio 4’s Today programme, nor yet the evening when I improbably appeared in an oriental bazaar made of rented carpets to talk about Islamic architecture for BBC2. No, the one that stands out is when Sandi Toksvig, diminutive presenter of the Radio 4 travel programme Excess Baggage, asked me which was my favourite airport.

As it happens, it’s Copenhagen. Toksvig, who was born in Copenhagen, just had to be on my side after that. I was there to plug a book all about airports and airport design. Hence my appearance on a programme somewhat removed from my usual run. I was a fish out of water in the travel-writer club, but I didn’t care/ I was briefly messianic about airports.

But there was a problem. I wanted to talk about the design of these places from an objective standpoint, but all anyone else wanted to talk about was how terrible they were as an experience. Patiently I would explain that there were two things at work here: architecture and design providing the space, the objects and – with luck – a sense of uplift. And then the systems of various kinds you engage with as a traveller. These are always going wrong. And nothing ever changes, except that the wrongness gets worse as the complexity increases. So don’t blame the designers for the opening chaos at Heathrow’s Terminal 5.

The problem with the launch appears to have been the fault lines between the various clients. Not just BA and BAA, but the many other companies involved in running an airport terminal. There seems to have been no one person who knew about everything – just many cells failing to communicate. In that sense, ironically, the problem lay in it being too much like a terrorist network.

Check-in and baggage chaos aside, there is nothing a designer can do about the fact that the plane you are due to board has just flown through some ducks and been taken out of service to be checked. Gone are the days when an airline – probably state-funded – would have surplus planes standing by for just such an eventuality. Today, nobody has any back-up planes, and nobody would have anywhere convenient to keep them on standby if they did: the economics of the global aviation business is utterly dependent on most of the planes being in the air at any given moment.

The fact remains that if you find yourself stuck in a terminal, it doesn’t matter how good it is. You will be bored witless, with nothing to do except buy overpriced consumer goods and yet another cappuccino. And this was the problem I faced when I was out and about plugging my airports book. Nobody actually looks at their physical surroundings in an airport. All you see is a series of obstacles which you must surmount to go to where you really want to be. If everything goes smoothly, it’s a neutral experience at best. When it goes wrong, the mental poison is forever associated with the building.

This is why designers of airports are doomed. Even if they achieve near perfection, it counts for nothing – because imperfection from somewhere else will come riding in like a horseman of the apocalypse to ruin things. On the whole, though, I’d still recommend Copenhagen. Its disasters are on a more manageable scale.

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