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Martin Pawley: a giant from the future

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Heathrow is a city: in many ways it is more of a city than the City of London or the City of Westminster. It is not only one of the few parts of England licensed to proceed into the twenty-first century unencumbered by listed buildings, but it has ample parking, no public transport, full employment and no beggars - all of which elements may be related. They certainly are in the zone of Heathrow City called Cargo, which is mostly off-limits to tourists, revealing itself only at a distance, over dense protective planting and concrete walls, in the shape of immense buildings on the skyline, grazing like dinosaurs. There are bland sheds; hangars that swallow whole aircraft; offices made out of multi-storey car parks; and car parks made out of demolished offices. Today the skyline of Cargo heaves with monsters - and one in particular that is a giant even by Cargo standards.

 

If ever a building merited Robert Venturi’s description of being like a giant typewriter, it is the new ba World Cargocentre. Designed by polymath consultant W S Atkins and commanding a budget of £250 million, it consists of a huge bull-nose-profile metal envelope, enclosing 87,000m2 of floorspace (including 5000m2 of connected offices, £80 million of mechanical handling equipment and £30 million of it). It is the single most expensive building ever built at Heathrow. When it opens next January, it will add two-thirds to the airport’s airside cargo-processing capacity, and boost ba’s share of it from 600,000 tonnes toone million tonnes per year - almost all of it carried to and fro in the bellies of passenger jets, for ba has no dedicated cargo aircraft.

 

The machine-building that will do all this is truly awesome. One-third of its 300 x 100 x 35m envelope has no floors, and will operate unheated and unlit. This is the 360,000m3 box filled with mechanically-accessed racking that will hold up to 2000 Unit Load Devices (the U-shaped containers that fit into the bellies of aircraft). Next to the uld store is another vast space, a great daylit 150,000m3 ventilation and structure slot that runs the full length of the building. Beyond that is the largest element of all, an immense 9600-location consignment store which occupies 540,000m3 on four floors. As these figures suggest, the Cargocentre truly is enormous. In fact its size was ultimately limited by its radar signature, which had to be toned down by stealth technology on two of its mighty windowless sides to prevent reflections upsetting the airport’s Watchman ground radar.

 

It is tempting after visiting this giant to speculate on the lessons for urbanism that such a machine might hold. For while the Cargocentre may be large, it can also be seen as a miniature of the whole future city of Heathrow. A city equipped with computer-controlled passenger-handling as well as cargo-handling equipment. A city where airline seats become Unit Load Devices, and passengers speed from plane to car without ever unfastening their seat belts. A city where the vast unpopulated wireframe void of the uld store becomes the paradigm for urban space.

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