Sunday, January 10, 2010

Terminal Decline

(Photo: Terminal 5 baggage hall, sans baggage).

Some Thoughts Occasioned By Spending Too Much Time in Heathrow Terminal 5.

NewsBiscuit put it best. "Britain struggling to cope with blanket weather reporting" was its perfect headline last Wednesday. Or, as @DaveGorman had it on his twitter feed: "TV weathermen are loving this. Take that news, we're the news now!". What is it with this country and the fucking weather? The sheer extent of coverage, the ludicrous triviality of the stories involved* and the weird mixture of "why can't we cope?" hand ringing mixed with pictures of kids on toboggans summoning up the innocent joys of winters past is both neurotic and perverse.

What is true is that everything goes to shit immediately. On the same day as Newsbiscuit's mock-story I had my own Travel Chaos. I arrived at Terminal 5 to fly to the US at about 10.30 am. I was still there at 11.30 pm. My flight was cancelled. In fact, ALL my flights were cancelled in painfully slow succession. I only found out the last one was cancelled after I had checked in. This hasn't happened to me before and for a while I was blissfully ignorant of what's involved in getting your bags back again. At this point you have to go back through the system as if you have just arrived, queuing up in baggage reclaim before going through customs. With virtually all outbound flights cancelled there were an awful lot of people with no plane and no bags.

The baggage reclaim hall was a dystopian or, perhaps, Ballardian experience: the nightmare of what happens when the complex and arcane support systems of modern life stop working properly. There were thousands and thousands of people waiting for baggage to be unloaded from planes that had never taken off. With so much unscheduled baggage coming back into the airport and only one carousel available the system couldn't really cope. The same bags were rotating round and round Carousel 7, unclaimed by owners who were probably still on their stationery plane or who had left the airport hours ago. Bags continued to come round with monotonous regularity, becoming eerily familiar as time passed.

At one point, driven senseless by the sight of the same suitcase going around for the 100th time, people started pulling the bags off and piling them anywhere that was free, only for more bags to appear in their place. Eventually there was no more space left. And then the conveyor broke, leaving them to pile up one behind the other. It was like a scene from Terry Gilliam's Brazil, where the guts of the buildings begin to burst out of the wall consuming everything.

Occasionally one of the baggage handlers would appear from behind a door to take a look how at bad it was and they would be immediately mobbed by angry passengers. Someone brought 'round some sandwiches on a trolley, which then got tipped over leaving people wading through the debris looking for unopened packets. But there were no BA staff to be found. It was strange to be left in this weird limbo, abandoned to some spiraling disaster by airport staff who no longer knew what to do or say. No announcements were made, no guidance given, no forms for lost luggage handed out, no nothing. Eventually, at 11.30, convinced that the chances of my baggage appearing that night (or ever again come to that) was pretty much zero I left for home.

So I didn't get to the US but I did get to admire Richard Rogers' smart new Terminal 5 for rather longer than I would have liked. The building's slick futurism and heroic representation of engineering know-how started to look more and more blackly comic as the day went on. One certainly can't blame the architects, but there is a particular kind of bathos involved in all that high-tech showboating when things go wrong. The loos are very posh, the flooring is nice and I'm always a sucker for for some cartoon engineering when Rogers' does it, but it's a farcical misrepresentation of British Airways' self-importance. The snow bound runways merely exaggerated the reality of the building anyway, which is that it is an upmarket shopping mall with an airport attached.

The contemporary airport is probably the perfect architectural encapsulation of the strange complexities and iniquities of modern (western) life. They are glossy and expensive playgrounds offering endless diversions that never mask the ennui of actually being there. They are also highly policed, security-obsessed environments where the people in them are both flattered as consumers and treated as potential lunatics at the same time.

Airports are the quintessential contemporary building type, the symbolic target for terrorists and the rallying point for environmentalists. They are the manifestation of our desires and the focus of our fears. Spatially they are highly complex, a warren of labyrinthine corridors, border controls and security tape. Terminal 5 - like Foster's Stanstead - strives to transcend the reality of endless queues and sock shops, harking back to the grand spaces of Victorian railway sheds, but the grim realities of immigration control always brings such flights of fancy back down to earth. Somewhere behind Terminal 5's glossy new branch of Carluccio's is the same grubby room where security guards insert their rubber gloved hands up the rectums of potential drug mules. Basically.

Airplane travel today is a weird echo of 1950's Service-with-a-Smile faux-luxury combined with the degrading intrusiveness of contemporary security arrangements. It's hard to equate the optimism of vintage BAOC adverts with the humiliation of thousands of people being forced to take their toothpaste through security in a clear plastic bag. Mind you, at least they still have their toothpaste. Mine is somewhere in the bowels of Terminal 5, amongst the thousands and thousands of other stray bags separated from their owners, perhaps never to be returned. I would like to see the same view shown at the top of this post taken at the height of Wednesday's madness. It would make an interesting contrast. Architecture and occupation and all that. Unfortunately I had packed my camera in my suitcase.

* The BBC News at Ten had a story, relatively high up the schedule, that a man had fallen into a frozen pond. That's one man. He didn't even die. He was rescued and given a cup of Bovril.


Tarek Merlin said...

Love it.

Especially liked the idea of the thinly veiled grubbiness of the reality of air travel. All the glossy shops and cafes, soaring architectural sheds, do not a successful airport make. Why is it so hard?

Charles Holland said...

Hi Tarek, yes all true although Terminal 5 is fine in and of itself I guess. It's just that the ubiquitous use of high tech architecture to represent the supposed freedoms and soaring ambitions of air travel is a bit of a joke.