Review: Heathrow’s cost-cutting slipstreams into terminal disappointment

It cost £2.5bn, will accommodate 20m passengers a year and has at its heart a work of art the size of a jumbo jet. Journalists were given a glimpse on Wednesday of Heathrow’s Terminal 2, the latest installation in the airport’s £11bn overhaul.

The building’s Spanish architect, Luis Vidal, described airports as “the cathedrals of the 21st century”. He talked about his desire to create a “destination”, comparing the scale of the retail space at the terminal to Covent Garden.

But is an airport a “destination”? Who would want to spend more time at one than they had to? Could the architecture be so spectacular it would woo people on its own?

It might have done. The original architects were to have been Foster & Partners – whose Beijing International is one of the few breathtaking terminals. Foster & Partners also designed the master plan for Heathrow’s renewal but, after a debt-loaded takeover by the Spanish infrastructure and construction giant Ferrovial, the elegant plans were shelved.

Madrid-based Mr Vidal was brought in to execute a more affordable, Foster-style wavy roof. He has succeeded in creating clear, naturally lit spaces, relatively intuitive way-finding and an efficient, generously spacious building. It also commendably retains Foster’s vision of a green airport, using 40 per cent less energy than a standard equivalent.

But it also lacks any spark capable of lifting it above the ordinary.

Materials and building details are confused. They manage to embrace almost every cliché from the language of the international airport. The roofs are tensile and undulating, the floors are terrazzo and bland, high-tech steel details are painted white, balconies are of stainless steel and glass, and Heathrow’s purple-and-yellow branding and signage are unpleasantly recognisable.

Clumsy details are plentiful. Poorly resolved elements aggressively bump into each other, trusses come up against glazed walls, ducts have been poorly concealed, spaces conceived as flowing are stymied suddenly by blocky boxes.

The kind of high-tech architecture tried here is expensive to do well. It depends on the integrity of, and attention to, engineering details. It explains the price difference between Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ inventive and ambitious T5 nearby – £4.3bn in 2008 – and this building. Too much stuff has been squeezed into spaces that, at 18m high, could have soared. It looks squeezed.

If a highlight stands out, it is Richard Wilson’s “Slipstream”. For 78m this aluminium-clad sculpture, weighing 77 tonnes, winds and twists through the covered courtyard at the building’s centre.

Based on the sinuous path of an aeroplane soaring through stunts and rolls, Mr Wilson described it as “a metaphor for a journey”. The sculpture, the UK’s largest, was made in Hull in 23 sections, using cutting-edge computer modelling.

“Slipstream” sits on four structural columns 18m above the court floor but also suspended above the escalators in a moment of real drama. Up close, the rivets holding panels together are at odds with what from afar appears as a seamless form. The rivetted panels recall the fuselages of early aeroplanes, creating a crafted, expressive surface.

As for the terminal itself, Mr Vidal said 20m people will pass through each year and, of these, 8m will be in transit. This means the building needed to be spectacular, he said, because it will be these transit passengers’ only experience of London. I doubt they will remember it fondly enough to want to come back, if they remember it at all.

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