Project by
Olivia Forty
Master Track
Roberto Cavallo, Engbert van der Zaag, Leo van den Burg

Waiting for Heathrow

Airports are a constantly outdated typology: as new terminals open, they are already at capacity and playing catch-up with technology. They are also problematic in spatial and architectural terms: the epitome of the non-place. Waiting for Heathrow aims to upturn the conventional view of the airport terminal by changing the context-less-ness of the airport terminal and exploring how it might be able to transform more easily in this rapidly changing sector.

In order to give context to the airport terminal, I will place it in an existing context. There is a strong relationship between Heathrow Airport and the town of Slough, only 10km away. 10% of Slough’s working population works at Heathrow, many more are employed as a result, and 25% of Heathrow’s take-offs fly directly over Slough.

Over at least the last 15 years, there has been the prospect of expansion of Heathrow. In 2016, the Conservative government announced plans to go ahead with the expansion, creating anticipation about what this might mean for Slough. However, this is not something new. The rollercoaster journey of Heathrow’s expansion was finally approved as a result of the Brexit vote, directly as a signal that Britain was ‘open for business, post referendum’. But will it ever happen or was this purely a political statement? If it is to happen, it will greatly affect Slough.

However, this is all uncertainty. As in the play ‘Waiting for Godot’ by Samuel Beckett, where ‘Godot’ never arrives but other characters come and go, Heathrow’s new terminal may never materialise. But as we cannot predict what will happen or when, Slough must prepare itself for all outcomes.

The act of ‘waiting’ can mean many things. Anticipation and expectation imply a positive result, but to dally or delay suggest time wasted and setbacks. Being ‘in limbo’ is to be waiting on factors that are beyond your control. The aim of the project is to deal with this idea of ‘waiting’, of being in limbo and how to design for every outcome. If Slough is to resist the impact of an expansion (or even contraction) of Heathrow, then it must be designed to be flexible and durable.

The idea is that anything could be accommodated in some way, at some time.


Research questions
Given the impact of the expansion of Heathrow on Slough and particularly on the relationship between the Trading Estate and the town, how can design be used to absorb the changes and adjust to the different scenarios that may occur?

  • Is it possible to design for every (or no) outcome? Can truly flexible architecture work in the long-term?
  • What does the act of ‘waiting’ mean in architectural terms? How can we design for an act that is inherently passive?

Goal of your project
The changing environment in the UK post-Brexit has created great uncertainty, making development in proximity to Heathrow Airport difficult. Waiting for Heathrow is an exploration of flexibility and airport architecture, bearing in mind that the airport itself may never be required. The project aims to explore the architectural manifestation of the act of waiting, as well as the wider implications of development being ‘in limbo’ with regards to Heathrow’s expansion.

Design Description
The concept of ‘limbo’ has its roots in Catholic theology, as the first circle of hell. Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is an analogy of Dante’s descent into Limbo in his Divine Comedy, and is the story of characters waiting for a character who, ultimately, never materialises. Waiting for Heathrow is an exploration of these ideas, both on a large scale – designing for uncertainty (Slough is ‘in limbo’ regarding the future of Heathrow), and on a small scale – in exploring the airport terminal, the project is looking at the day to day mundaneness of waiting.

At the heart of Slough is the Slough Trading Estate, around which the rest of the town has grown. This has resulted in a very singular urban form, where instead of being around the edges, all the industrial and light industrial functions are in the centre. This artificial centre of Slough will be the site for this project, studying the edges and the current ‘limbo’ condition between the two.

The future of Heathrow could mean very different consequences for Slough, depending on whether the airport is to decline, stay the same or boom. This project will be a shock absorber: this means having the capability of containing housing, commercial space, office space, residential space, transport connections and an airport terminal, depending on what is required.