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"Slipstream" sculpture simulates flight pattern in re-vamped Heathrow Terminal 2


April 23, 2014

The 78m-long (256-ft) sculpture is suspended on four structural columns (Photo: Heathrow Airports Limited)

The 78m-long (256-ft) sculpture is suspended on four structural columns (Photo: Heathrow Airports Limited)

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Engineers have called it "the hundred-thousand-piece jigsaw," and today it was unveiled as the centerpiece of a new extension to London's Heathrow Terminal 2 building. The aluminum-clad sculpture titled "Slipstream," by artist RIchard Wilson, reaches 78 meters (256 feet) and weighs upward of 77 metric tons (85 tons). Engineering firm Price & Myers was tasked with the job of designing parts for the piece, which twists and turns in simulation of a small airplane as it moves through space performing a series of acrobatic maneuvers.

Algorithms and hand-drawing

Wilson's idea was to replicate the flight path of a stunt plane in a fluid, three-dimensional form. The resulting sculpture is suspended across the atrium-like space of the Terminal hall in a dynamic silver sweep. Processes used to create the tumbling shape of the piece include a computer program that helped to plot the different points of movement of the plane, and then interpolate between the points to come up with a line of movement.

The many surfaces of the final sculpture were calculated by algorithm to maintain the flowing form in aluminum cladding. However, as programming each step in the assembly would have been more time-consuming than hand-drawing, much of the work in delineating the placement of each piece was actually done through hand-sketching.

Not just a shiny surface

The structure makes used of a "stressed skin" which covers a series of pieces made from plywood and oriented strand board (OSB). This means that the skin takes some of the force of weight and transfers it back to the bearing steel structure. The cladding was fixed with visible "rivets," recalling aircraft construction. According to the engineers, "a jumbo jet contains about a million rivets and Slipstream has about half that number."

A work of many parts

Beneath the cladding, a complex series of timber "bulkhead" structures had to be assembled and connected by steel sections attached to the four roof-support columns. The sculpture is mounted like a bridge between each sets of columns. A standard size for each of 23 sections, or "cassettes," used to complete the sculpture was determined by the capacity of a flat-bed lorry.

Describing the process of erecting the sculpture as assembling a giant jigsaw, the engineers explained that each cassette was made up of numerous timber supports and pieces of ply that had to be fit together, with the aluminum cladding covering each section precisely.

Motion studies and terrorism

The engineers point out that the sculpture harkens back to earlier artistic studies in motion, such as those by photographer Eadweard Muybridge in the late 19th century. Though the flight path was created by the artist and designers, a stunt pilot was commissioned to recreate the flight and was able to do so successfully.

Once the form and materials had been decided, the sculpture had to be tested for stability, in particular to determine how it would behave in an explosion, such as in a terrorist attack. A mocked-up section was put through a test explosion to determine whether it would split into dangerous shrapnel. The section proved even more robust than expected and, engineers say, "it stayed pretty well intact."

The Terminal 2 extension was designed by Luis Vidal Architects and will be officially opened as "the Queen's Terminal" by Queen Elizabeth II on June 23.

Source: Heathrow Airport

About the Author
Phyllis Richardson Phyllis is an architecture and design writer based in London. She champions the small and sustainable and has published several books, including the XS series (XS, XS Green, XS Future) and Nano House. In her spare time she ponders the impact of the digital world on the literary. All articles by Phyllis Richardson

Nice. But it's at Heathrow, aka my favorite airport-to-avoid-at-any-cost.

I'll happily pay hundreds of dollars to never ever get stuck again in a BA flight like the one I had two years ago and that was cancelled and BA staff let me stand in line for three hours, for a 30 second procedure of re-booking to be done, telling me a flight I could have gotten had left 30 minutes ago and telling me my connecting flight would be next day from the continent as a result. And then they said "so sorry" and gave me a coupon for 10 british pounds, good for one sandwich at that airport. I went to the BA lounge hoping to use their wifi (from outside) to check my email and even after telling them what happened they wouldn't let me. All this at the home airport of BA.

Never ever will I stop over there again, nor fly BA, not even to look at nice sculptures like that one.


I never quite got the glorification of art any more than some of the stuff that passes for music and is actually just noise or like monkeys banging away on things repetitively.

Cut a fuselage open and display it there and I would find that worth looking at, educational, thought-provoking. Most art just says to me, non-engineer now suffering even more from overconfidence due to a big paycheck coming in thanks to that nonfunctional thing.

Just the same, I would like to have been on the team that installed that one, interesting challenge.


Great art. Look forward to seeing it in real life! Glad to see some still have the ability to fund public art.

Steve Raznick
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