Out of the cockpit

Pilot’s daughter, architect and client design lead Karen Rogers has helped deliver Heathrow’s new Terminal 2 with tenacity, adroit management and a touch of maternal control

Karen Rogers on the departure level walkway of the cavernous ‘transition zone’ into Heathrow’s new Terminal 2.   The fabric covered steel structure forms a translucent roof that runs through to the depths of the airside baggage hall.
Karen Rogers on the departure level walkway of the cavernous ‘transition zone’ into Heathrow’s new Terminal 2. The fabric covered steel structure forms a translucent roof that runs through to the depths of the airside baggage hall. · Credit: David Vintiner

Icy gusts blow through the new Terminal 2’s ‘Transition zone’, but it feels warmer standing next to Karen Rogers; something I can’t put down just to the vicarious comfort of her thick velvet coat. Perhaps it’s her affable unguarded nature  that puts me instantly at ease. I’m here to ask about her role as landside design leader for Heathrow, but I could just as easily be seeking her advice on my personal life or finances, and you feel she’d be just as open in her response. Rogers sees me shiver. ‘It’s covered but open as we don’t want to encourage people to dwell here,’ she says. ‘It’s a 30m zone separating the car park and drop-off from the main facade of the terminal.’ So effectively a security buffer then.  

By contrast Rogers, supporting the client on the project, seems quite happy out here – the landside part of the terminal is her domain, and she’s in good company. Above us, attached to the central columns that hold up the 20m capacity terminal’s huge translucent fabric covered wave-like steel roof, is artist Richard Wilson’s impressive ‘Slipstream’. The £2.5m sculpture is the result of his four-second filming of a stunt plane twist and turn through the sky, traced and modelled in 3D. Of riveted aluminium, the shiny, corkscrewing form runs in flux for 70m, weighs more than 70 tonnes and is the artistic centrepiece of the reinvented terminal. Responsible for getting this built, as well as the space that holds it, Rogers’ eyes were as firmly on the pragmatics as Wilson’s were on the skies. She had  to assure the security team the sculpture wouldn’t be a security hazard; achieved, I’m informed, by internally tethering so it ‘fails safely’ into its 21 ‘cassettes’. She mentions a design meeting where a security consultant asked why Slipstream couldn’t be made out of paper. ‘Wilson put the lid back on his pen,’ she recalls, ‘closed his sketchbook and said slowly, “It can – only not with my name on it...” In a design role governed by committees, rules and regulations, it’s at times like these that Roger’s tenacity and negotiation skills came in handy. ‘When I started here, I wanted to create a stunning front door for the terminal,’ she says, a remark that links the visionary with the prosaic, a clue to the nature of her client design role.

Appointed in 2010 as part of a small ­design team heading up a major £2.5bn terminal infrastructure project for client Heathrow, it turns out that Rogers, 50, had no previous airport experience at all (‘ironic’, she notes, given her father was an RAF pilot who had sat her, as a child, in the cockpit of a Vulcan bomber). Rogers recounts her experience before her current role in pithy vignette. She worked at BDP for 10 years on big projects, notably mixed-use housing for developer Ballymore with director Tony McGuirk, ‘a fantastic designer who handed me the co-­ordinating role’, and for 10 years before that at Sheppard Robson as part of the executive architect team for Tate Modern with Herzog & de Meuron, ‘who have a great product and a great relationship with Nick Serota... but while Sheppard Robson was great, I did sense a glass ceiling’. Before that she was at Jestico + Whiles, which was so much fun it’s where she met her partner; caveating the comment with ‘so one of us was going to have to go...’ 

Rogers thinks landing this role had more to do with her particular skills than direct experience of the sector. She admits it took her about six months to get her feet under the desk and start to understand the Heathrow acronyms – a few of which she fluently reels off for me – and then a protracted OJEU procurement process; but once done, it became more about balancing stakeholder objectives with design team aspirations and the day to day realities of working with the contractor. They were working to a Foster+Partners masterplan and when Spain’s Ferrovial took over BAA, Spanish architect Vidal & Vidal was appointed to work the design up. Rogers admits it’s not been plain sailing: most recently architect Pascall + Watson came in to get the snagging done for its 4 June handover. The whole process, she says, required negotiation. ‘It was all about having complex building experience, but more than that a real force of personality. Despite any issues ­between the teams, you always have to be able to bring people to the table and work with them.’ And did she bring femininity too? ‘I suppose so – although I’d prefer to call it plain common sense,’ she adds. ‘(BDP’s) Richard Saxon ­always said I treated contractors like my sons! But that aside, half the people doing equivalent roles to mine at Heathrow are women. That’s more than I can say of my experience in an architectural practice.’

It’s always been about the departure experience rather than arrival, because that’s where retail value is. Unlike T5, we’ve tried to make it exciting for both

So standing with Rogers in the Kubrick-like white expanse of Terminal 2’s new check-in hall, whose fabric ceiling will subtly change colour over the course of the day, you feel she’s satisfied with what’s been achieved – it’s definitely different to Terminal 5. Oddly, this space feels more ‘old school’; cleaner, more intimate, with less obvious branding competing with the space. Rogers is philosophical about living in the shadow of RSHP’s behemoth. ‘Everyone realises the significance of T5 and the awards it’s won, but I think we have succeeded in using a common palette of materials to create a completely different aesthetic for T2; I’d even say we’ve gone further.’ In what way? ‘Well, it’s always been about the departure experience rather than arrival, because that’s where retail value is. Unlike T5, we’ve tried to make it exciting for both. We’ve pushed the huge media walls into the transition zone, so inside there’s just clear, state of the art self check-in, bag drop and airside areas. But the baggage halls here are cathedral-like and instead of arrivals being pushed out of a narrow exit, they get to see “Slipstream” from below ­rather than above. I’m happy to call it the world’s next best terminal.’

With the huge media screens concentrated in the transition zone, the ticketing hall seems remarkably clean and uncluttered. Studio Fractal’s lighting strategy, set within the fabric roof, will ensure the ceiling colour changes subtly over the day.
With the huge media screens concentrated in the transition zone, the ticketing hall seems remarkably clean and uncluttered. Studio Fractal’s lighting strategy, set within the fabric roof, will ensure the ceiling colour changes subtly over the day.

I ask Rogers if we’re to expect the same problems that plagued T5 when it opened, but she thinks not.  ‘We’ve been through a six month familiarisation process and it’s going to be a soft start. Only 17 Star Alliance flights will come in on the first day, with airlines moving in over the next few months, slowly bringing it up to its 20 million capacity. It’s not going to be a “Big Bang” like it was at T5: that’s a lesson learned,’ she explains. And if it turns out it isn’t, Rogers has been trained to get out on the terminal floor and muck-in with clip-boards, trestle tables and the tea.

As for the future, she seems torn – there’s still a lot to do here. Terminal 1 is yet to be demolished and T2B Phase 2 constructed in its place, and when asked about the third runway, she thinks the desire to maintain Heathrow’s status as a global hub will force the argument. ‘To build Boris Island would take 15-20 years, and while it’s a nice idea, the UK would have lost its edge,’ she feels. So while she misses the social life and energy of the city and would ‘like to be involved on some significant urban regeneration project,’ perhaps she feels her skills are still needed here, at one of the UK’s most valuable bits of commercial real estate. ‘Who knows? Once Terminal 1’s gone it might be time for Terminal 6!’ she concludes cheekily. And as she disappears back to her small office tucked behind a subterranean lift shaft, you get the feeling she won’t be swapping landing lights for the bright city lights any time soon.