The Wind Tunnel Project


20 June 2014

Q121 and R52 are two wind tunnels located in a former flight testing centre by Farnborough airport. They are now open to the public for the first time in their near century-long existence. Their revamp is thanks to The Wind Tunnel Project, a six-week programme of events and site-specific installations.

This appropriation of structures originally active during the two World Wars is an intriguing development. Q121 and R52 have had a celebrated history. They were invaluable during the war years, playing host to much of the development of the Hawker Hurricane, the Allied plane that fought in the Battle of Britain and all major theatres of the Second World War.

Throughout the 20th century, both tunnels were centres of Britain's aeronautical industry. Q121 remains the largest wind tunnel in the United Kingdom, affording the space required for development of wing and fuselage sections, engines and completed planes. R52, one of the world's first aerodynamic testing centres was built out of wood in 1917, yet active up until the 1990s. Both hangars are rich in history.

The current revamp of the site into a cultural venue was overseen by arts organisation Artliner, which commissioned new installation work for the hangars by artists James Bridle and Thor McIntyre. Salma Tuqan, the V&A’s contemporary Middle East curator, was invited to provide direction for the project. "We felt that for the first year of this project that it was all about introducing people to the space, unraveling some of the anecdotes and also making the most out of the archival information and material that was preserved," says Tuqan, who hopes that the project will become a biennial event. "We felt that this experience should be a real sensory one, allowing visitors to be led by their senses.”

Tuqan's focus on sensorial experience is a break from the functional, industrial heritage of the site, with Bridle and McIntyre used sound and sight to create installations the primary point of which recall the site's past. Rather than developing the technology of tomorrow as they did in the past, Q121 and R52 are now dedicated to nostalgia and reflection.

Bridle's work is a case in point. Best known for his ongoing Drone Shadows project – which recently won the graphic design category of Designs of the Year at the Design Museum – Bridle created the Rainbow Plane 001 for Farnborough, a plane outline constructed from coloured tape that serves as a development of the aesthetic he employed for his drones project

Rainbow Plane 001 is a drawing of the Miles M.52 jet plane, a secret plane developed at Farnborough in the 1940s that was intended break the sound barrier. Bridle has recreated the outline of the plane multiple times in coloured tape outside of the two hangars, mimicking the pansharpened appearance of a plane in flight when pictured by a satellite. “The plane was tested in the wind tunnels here but never flew," says Bridle. "So I've put it back in the huge form of a rainbow plane, in the hope that maybe that it will trick a satellite passing overhead into capturing it over the next few weeks.”

Bridle's work engages with the site's history, yet it is McIntyre’s installations that plays the keener role in bringing the history of the aviation centre to life. A key part of McIntyre's project was an acoustic exploration the Q121 wind tunnel. "Turbulence often manifests itself as sound," says McIntyre, who developed his project by playing 20th-century cellist Beatrice Harrison's recordings inside the tunnels, examining how the sound moved through the spaces.

Upon entering Q121 visitors are asked to remove their shoes and put on slippers. It is a move intended to cancel out as much outside noise as possible. When inside of the hangar you are welcomed by the sound of the BBC's annual live Nightingale broadcast. The atmosphere shifts however as the broadcast’s pitch grows higher, eventually dissolving into echoes of the fleet of World War II air-bombers on their way to Germany, a moment captured in the skies and airwaves of 1942.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, an 18th century German writer, is often quoted as describing architecture as "frozen music" and The Wind Tunnel Project encapsulates a similar idea. The Farnborough site is an area inextricably tied to its history; it is impossible to view the hangars independently of what was once constructed there. The original purpose of the wind tunnels is paramount.

Bridle and McIntyre have taken this on board admirably. The installations they have created for the site play with sight and sound, manipulating them to evoke the hangars' history and context. What is important about the tunnels is not their formal properties or aesthetic, but rather the events that have previously transpired within the airfield. The wind tunnels are not a contemporary venue, but rather a poignant reminder of the past; a relic of the music that once played there.