Heathrow Terminal 5: Why Airports Look Like Airports

How airports are designed to make us feel excited, nervous, impatient, or small.

Grayish white, bare — a curved plane of glass, the size of five football fields, held aloft by grids of steel. The largest single building in the United Kingdom…How apt of a construction to impress visitors from all over the world. Nearly 70 million passengers arrive at Heathrow Airport each year from 90 countries.

Richard Rogers, the mastermind behind Heathrow’s 5th Terminal, wished to maximize its usage and flexibility of the space. Virtually nothing inside Terminal 5 is decoration. By taking out everything that is unnecessary, he frees up as much of the space as possible to the function of the airport: its visitors, commercial venues, and the vast number of check-in desks. It also allows for room to adapt to new uses and technologies as time passes, as the building only offers the space itself.

Heathrow Terminal 5
FACEBOOK Heathrow Airport

Rogers is famous for his Bowellist designs. Bowellism is an architectural style that deliberately exposes the inner nuts and bolts of a building, and it comes from the word “bowels,” because it’s a little like seeing the internal organs of the human body which are usually hidden by the flesh. By taking out all of the coverings that usually hide the interior workings of the building, he has exposed the secrets of the construction. Visually, we can see where all of the beams go and which parts of the building they support. In the words of Rogers, “the key to this juxtaposition of parts is the legibility of the role of each technological component which is functionally stressed to the full.”

This “transparency” of the construction is, ironically, what feels so alien to us visitors. Seeing the prioritization of function over everything else, you also want to hurry up and stop dawdling, go quickly check in your luggage, grab a coffee, do your duty-free shopping don’t just stand there. Your plane is leaving soon. You’re swept up in this industrialist rush of efficiency and time is sped up, and you feel small, as small as a cog in a machine, because the space is so enormously big.

Centre Pompidou
Roger is also famous for having designed the Pompidou Center, a modern art museum in Paris, which also embodies the architectural idea of Bowellism. Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

We can look at Bowellist architecture as a branch of a more generic category, Avant-Garde art. Avant-Garde plays around with the form or material of art and less with the content. It does not try to be beautiful, but it is experimental in the way it pushes the boundaries of the forms that art can take. Heathrow’s Terminal 5 is not only a monstrous feat of construction; it is an imitation of a monstrous feat of construction. Its many uncovered beams and supporting architecture exaggerate the art and form of construction. It is designed to awe you. Rogers notes himself, “working in someone else’s architectural practice was not for me,” the words of a true frontline pioneer of avant-garde.

The Bowellist philosophy behind Terminal 5 stands in stark contrast to kitsch styles which are considered to be unoriginal and deliberately unintelligent to suit the tastes of the masses. In fact, some of the oldest terminals at Heathrow, back in the 1940s, were full of armchairs with floral patterns, upholstered sofas, and vases of fresh flowers. Heathrow’s website describes its earliest commercial form as, “primitive but comfortable.” Terminal 5, however … You can imagine not everyone will have been particularly fond of it.

heathrow terminal 5
Heathrow Terminal 5 exterior. FACEBOOK Heathrow Airport

Since the age of flowery armchairs, Heathrow has gone through a revolution in air traffic and passenger count as London increasingly became a global hub. Demand for flights soared and new terminals were built as old ones were redesigned. Terminal 5 is the latest addition to the airport (which opened in 2008) and, weirdly, the most inefficient in its design.

Looking at the map, Terminal 5 only has parking on one side of the biggest structure. Passengers can only reach the two sub-terminals by buses that run underground. If we consider that the other four terminals have a more centralized structure, not having to go on a bus at any point, Terminal 5 clearly doesn’t optimize the passenger experience. Instead, it maximizes the number of planes it can accommodate. Contrasted with the other terminals, we can see that Terminal 5 eliminates dead space by having planes line up in perfect rectangles.

Heathrow Airport
Heathrow Terminal 5 Map. PHOTO: iFly


Heathrow Airport
Heathrow Airport Map. PHOTO: iFly

We’ve already established that Rogers had prioritized function over aesthetics in his design of Terminal 5. In fact, by optimizing the function to such a length that it gets rid of everything unnecessary, that in itself becomes a sort of aesthetic, at least in a standoffish, avant-garde sense. But what “function” are we talking about? The average visitor will not exactly have a relaxing time here, what with the cold barrenness of the interior and the fact that you have to travel by bus to get to your plane. The function, then, is in the economic benefit of the airport. The weird orientation of Terminal 5 maximizes the number of planes it can host at the same time, and because this is an airport, the first impression it leaves to visitors and immigrants will be to suggest that individual experience should accommodate industrial end-goals. Far from being beautiful, Rogers’ Terminal 5 is a visual testament to the UK’s unwavering economic and technological power.

Heathrow doesn’t exactly stand out in the field of airport design. If you’ve ever used it, it might have looked and felt exactly like any other airport. That will say something about what international airports, in general, have converged to over the last few decades of rapid development in aviation. The more that airports rearrange themselves for efficiency and function, the more flights there will be, the more people will travel for business and for leisure, and the faster the economy runs.

The next time you set foot in an airport, look at what it values. How does the space make you feel?

Lyon Nishizawa


Lyon is a lifelong traveler, who looks at each destination as her next classroom and playground. She is fascinated by the stories, music, and languages of the world. Her parents are Japanese, but she spent her childhood in multiple cultures and identifies as a third culture kid.

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