I have been travelling too much recently. Yes it has been great for my creativity and I have had some amazing times, but it has been accompanied by a lack of stability and uncertainty about where my things are and an unhealthy obsession with airports. (Also a rather curtailed blogging effort!)
The place that initiated my obsession was Heathrow’s new Terminal 5. To put it bluntly I had a strong negative reaction to it. This was not because of the famous troubles the terminal had on opening. By the time I got there these were ironed out and even the baggage retrieval system seem quite slick. My unease went deeper.
In full disclosure I was waiting six hours between flights, and my first problem was a restriction that I could not check-in earlier than three hours before my flight. I was sitting for a long time in the pre-check-in wilderness. I therefore had too much time to think and a negative mindset.
In the case of Terminal 5 this space, together with the checked-in area lies under a giant roof. It is open and clean. So where does my negative reaction step in? Well the overriding impression my tired and grumpy brain was receiving was of the subtly distopian techno-future where an almost perfect mask hides deep dark secrets. The openness perhaps was to the benefit of security, watching our every move rather than to give a sense of freedom. Equally the cleanliness, normally an ideal that I subscribe to, while often falling short personally, went beyond the pleasant into the controlling. The cleanliness that equates being dirty to the ultimate sin and is willing to use a great deal of chemicals to wash anything away. The cleanliness that in its obsession perhaps puts up this virtue to mask the dark secrets that I mentioned before.
Lets come back to reality for a moment. I am simply saying that the cleanliness felt sterile and the openness made the fact that you are watched more obvious. Then there is the building itself. The walls lean outwards. This is a neat idea architecturally, and produced some beautiful images of reflected planes from a distance. Making it look like the airport building is storing spare jumbos vertically inside. They also, however, increased my unease, the feeling that in this airport I really was just a sheep to be herded round the system and deposited onto a plane. Presumably spending as much as possible in the shops on the way. Perhaps the angled wall creates a subtle push into the building as the mind cannot quite grasp that it is not really vertical. As in my case I wanted to follow this push (in reality I was the willing sheep, I wanted to be herded onto my plane so I could get where I wanted to go) this might even have made the three hour restriction more galling. These effects are subtle and of course in attempting to analyse the causes of an emotional state we are liable to get it completely wrong.
In contrast to these subtleties when I was finally allowed to enter the airport my complaints about the design became practical. There has long been a problem in big airports that one must walk a long distance to get to your gate, as planes are massive and thus gates need to be well spread. The designers of Terminal 5, faced with a (relatively) small site, have obviously considered this and attempted to change things. Their new concept is to have three buildings, each with a smaller number of gates, connected by an underground transit. At the moment only two 5A and 5B have been built, but a lot of work seems to be taking place on 5C. Presumably 5C will stand empty when the extra traffic created when the government rams a third runway through protests fails to materialise due to the downturn in air travel.
This design answers the problem that the Heathrow site is too small for the number of passengers. However it is not elegant and most certainly does not do anything for passenger comfort. Firstly the transit is underground, while the waiting halls are on the top floor. So one begins by travelling down a long way. This is followed by a wait for the transit and a short underground journey. Finally there is a climb back to the exalted heights of the departure lounge. To make matters worse the transit is not even in the middle of these still massive buildings. So many people will have to walk from one end to the other of both.
This transit structure even seems to explain the three hour requirement. When I did get into the airport it was crowded. As the gates in the A building are essentially in the waiting area everyone on these flights was around. In addition people who had flights from the B building were waiting to take the transit until close to their flight. Indeed when I got the B building it was nearly empty. As a result the whole collection of passengers is concentrated in a small area, that also has all the best shops (hmm…perhaps this makes the design requirements clearer).
Terminal 5, therefore, seems to me to be triumph of style and great design without sufficient consideration of human comfort. This was highlighted on my latest trip for which I travelled from City Airport. This is a smaller airport so not a fair comparison, but as a small airport it is without equal. It has no architectural vision, the buildings are to put in bluntly boxy. It is however fast and efficient (20 mins check-in time!). As a result I took less than one hour to get from home to sitting on my plane. This is herding I can deal with!