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Terminal Light Bulbs

“British Airways wishes to apologise
to passengers for the late departure of many of our flights this evening.  This is due to poor visibility in the
terminal building.”

I made that up.  But it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.

Here is the problem.  Passengers using Terminal 5 at Heathrow,
especially those on early mornings or late evening flights, swear they have
noticed lately a decline in the light.  They
have probably been blaming tired eyes, a natural instinct given the times of day;
in the mornings some people take a while to become fully functional, and in the
evenings, after a long day, eyes can become tired and droopy.

But tired eyes are not to blame.  The reason Terminal 5 has been getting
progressively gloomier of late is this: thousands of failed light bulbs have
not been replaced.  And there is also a
very good reason why they have not been replaced, and that is because there is
no easy way to do it.

Changing light bulbs in Terminal
5 is no minor undertaking.  I should say will be no minor undertaking because it
has never actually been done.  For a
start, there are 120,000 bulbs, which drive the down-lights that illuminate the
concourse below, plus 2,600 sensors, whatever they are.  The main problem, though, is not one of volume
but of access.  The lights are high in
the rafters of the ceiling and apparently nobody thought of providing the means
to get to them.  

Now, you may well ask how, in
this day and age, the design and construction of the world’s largest airport
terminal – a process that from end to end must have taken many years – could
have been conceived and implemented without a single person posing the crucial
and rather fundamental question of how the light bulbs could be changed.  If it happened in your house, you would no
doubt fire the architect and refuse to pay the electrician.

In the event, the question was not
posed, and so the operators of Terminal 5 now have to employ high-wire circus
performers, or their industrial equivalents, to swing to and from among the
rafters, like Burt Lancaster in Trapeze,
inserting new bulbs and replacing sensors. 

At the risk of bringing on an
attack of apoplexy in my son-in-law, who seeks to join Britain’s
community of architects, I would say that Terminal 5 manifests all the well known
negative hallmarks of Richard Rogers.  He
has ‘previous’, as policemen like to say. Rogers
designs buildings that resemble giant climbing frames, with lots of exposed
steel girders and pipes.  His work
includes the Pompidou Centre in Paris, which
gleamed when it was opened but now looks shabby, and the Lloyds
Building in the City of London, which looked
shabby even at its opening.  There have
been water problems at the Pompidou, and users over the years have complained
of other design inconveniences.  Lloyds
was derided by many, including this writer, as a building with all the
paraphernalia of heating and ventilation incongruously exposed on the outside
rather than, as has been traditional and dare I say it sensible, hidden on the

Even the tenants don’t much care
for it, and the building was recently sold to a bank group for considerably
less than the market rate, apparently for fear of being unable to attract new
tenants, should Lloyds decide to leave, which seems increasingly likely.     

Complaining that the lifts are
unreliable, and maintenance costs too high, Lloyds’ chief executive Michael
Ward, recently said, “That’s the problem with this building.  Everything is exposed to the elements and
that makes it very costly”.

I am not one of Rogers’ admirers, but contrary to popular
belief I have nothing against modern architecture.  But the evidence of Pompidou and Lloyds and
Terminal 5 speaks volumes for the dangers of pandering to a wildly inflated architectural

Rogers can’t be blamed for everything.  The London skyline, now a spiky horizon of
shards, gherkins, cheese-graters and the like, stands in dreadful testament to the
collective hubris of his colleagues in a once esteemed profession.

But aesthetics are for another
discussion at another time. 

Meanwhile, it only remains to
wish British Airways and the management of Terminal 5 all the best in solving
the problem of changing the light bulbs – and to give thanks that Rogers and his
ilk have never been commissioned to design the airplanes.


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