The New Architecture of Travel

Aena/Manuel Renau

The first thing you notice about Beijing Capital Airport’s new Terminal 3—some two miles long and designed to handle 50 million passengers a year—is an obvious one: It is dizzyingly big. The next is its extraordinary and unexpected serenity. The roof billows upward as if floating on air and light filters down from triangular cuts in the steel canopy as if through leaves in a forest. More daylight floods in from giant windows at the side, giving continuous views of the main business of airports—the airplanes.

There is a unity and a simplicity to the building that befits a small work of art. Curved lines rise and fall along its length like single strokes of a pen, and its colors flow from yellow to orange to red like paint on a palette. Yet it serves the astoundingly complex business of air travel, with the intricate systems of baggage, security screening, escalators and moving walkways, food and shops, VIP lounges, connections to rail transport. The $3.5 billion structure gives no sense that, not long ago, the site resembled a Napoleonic battlefield, with as many as 50,000 men laboring in mud and clouds of dust that made one end of the project invisible to the other.

The terminal’s designer is Norman Foster, who, in addition to being a world-famous architect, describes himself as “enthralled by the experience of flight.” He pilots his own jet and helicopter and trained himself to the standard necessary to fly a 747, just for fun. To be close to the city’s main heliport, he rebuilt his office in London’s Battersea section. That’s where I reach him by phone when he tells me how the Beijing project, the culmination of a lifelong love affair with the air travel, is among the very finest of the hundreds of celebrated buildings his office has created. He talks about the “harmonics of color” and the “spiritual dimension” he sought to bring to the functional building, so as to make it “more human, more pleasurable, more joyful.”

Beijing’s Terminal 3 follows in a tradition of transportation buildings that transcend their purpose and capture the popular imagination. The structural daring of London’s St. Pancras station—newly and impressively renovated as the terminal for high-speed Channel Tunnel trains to Europe—inspired generations of architects to reimagine the possibilities of steel and glass after it was unveiled in the late 1860s. Grand Central Terminal in New York, opened in 1913, is as much urban cathedral as rail hub, an icon immortalized in literature and film. Eero Saarinen’s sweeping sixties terminals at Dulles Airport in Washington and at JFK in New York embodied the promise and possibility of modern travel. Renzo Piano’s 1994 Kansai Airport in Osaka, Japan, brilliantly pushed the engineering and aesthetic boundaries of late-20th-century transport architecture.

Like many of the great airport buildings of recent decades, Foster’s Beijing terminal employs the concept of a single enormous roof, rising effortlessly and sailing over the whole complex. It is an attempt to reassert a romantic, uncomplicated notion of air travel, giving passengers a sense of orientation and direction while letting in daylight and lifting the spirits. Even as the shifting lower levels in the terminal are dominated by practical constraints, the main concourse is an open, unchanging zone where Foster’s vision rules, the soaring roof offering ready metaphors of flight.

The terminal illustrates the contradiction at the heart of air travel. On the one hand there’s the romantic, fairy-tale idea of getting into a machine and flying, of Bogart and Bergman saying farewell on the tarmac, without check-in or customs and duty-free. On the other is the actual complexity of processing tens of millions of passengers per year, keeping them safe from accident and attack, and serving their needs and desires.

The romantic idea is perhaps best achieved in the rare case of Santos Dumont Airport in Rio de Janeiro, where arriving passengers descend past picturesque Sugarloaf Mountain and land next to the water before passing through a small, elegant early-forties pavilion to an exit only one mile from the center of the great city. The more normal default setting of modern airports is Sheetrock purgatories formed by regulations and logistics, of disconnection and disorientation.

There was a time when such conditions were standard. Airports were like socialist republics whose authorities cared little for their subjects, the passengers, who were made prisoners of the processes of departure and arrival. Many still are: much of JFK, for example, as well as London’s Heathrow, a 50-year agglomeration of airless functional boxes.

But airports now realize that they have to compete with each other and sometimes with other forms of transport, such as trains. To attract people they have to soothe, pamper, and inspire. If long-haul fliers can choose from passing through, say, London, Amsterdam, or Frankfurt, they tend to pick the airport that treats them best. These days travelers—especially those in business class or better—are treated less as statistics and more as individuals to be wooed.

Last autumn the renovated St. Pancras station in London opened to a fanfare of self-congratulation for both the building’s glorious Victorian architecture, carefully restored, and the luxuries on offer: the longest Champagne bar in Europe, shops selling lingerie and truffles, exhibitions laid on by the British Museum, ease of circulation, ready access to the rest of London, and rapid journey times to Paris and Brussels. The message, reinforced by advertising, was that flying is a chore, rail travel a civilized pleasure.

The architecture of train stations has been getting more adventurous. The roof of Nicholas Grimshaw’s Southern Cross Station in Melbourne, Australia, billows up and down like a sheet in the wind. Santiago Calatrava is bringing his distinctive style, in which white steel structures look like the skeletons of as-yet undiscovered fabulous beasts, to the World Trade Center Transportation Hub in New York. The city of Naples is proposing to build a series of exotic stations, each one completely different from the next, created by a varied roster that includes architect Zaha Hadid, sculptor Anish Kapoor, and product designer Karim Rashid. The aim is to get away from old, functional formulas and form “urban stages,” in which each station is an extraordinary public space as much as an instrument of transport.

The Naples plan has yet to be realized, but other built projects by Hadid show what might be done. Her Terminus Hoenheim-Nord in Strasbourg takes the mundane task of creating an interchange between car and tram and turns it into a dynamic urban experience. The funicular train stations she designed in Innsbruck, Austria, are curvaceous canopies that resemble glacial formations and engage passersby through an interplay of reflections and shapes.

Some of these rail stations, including St. Pancras and Southern Cross, compete with airports for business. The local stations in Naples and Innsbruck do not but are still part of a growing worldwide belief that transport buildings should be exceptional places.

Airports are responding in kind. In addition to Beijing, Foster is working on Terminal East at Heathrow, slated to be finished in time for the 2012 Olympic Games. Richard Rogers, who four decades ago was Foster’s business partner, was the architect behind the huge terminal at Madrid’s Barajas that opened in 2006, as well as Heathrow’s recently completed Terminal 5. The Chicago firm Murphy/Jahn’s impressive Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok opened in 2006. And New York–based Rafael Viñoly returned to his native Uruguay to build what he has called “a big umbrella” for Carrasco Airport in Montevideo, debuting later this year.

All the airports in this new wave are about resisting chaos and creating calm. They aim to achieve on a large scale what a massage or a manicure does on a small one. They are thresholds between land and sky, semidetached from the disorderliness of the ground. They offer reassurance that someone is in charge and knows what they’re doing. Few people, no matter how much they travel, can entirely banish their anxious knowledge of its dangers, and the whole business can be sustained only by high levels of organization.

In the pursuit of calm, the evocation of nature has become increasingly important. Rogers’s firm, Rogers Stirk Harbour, lined the ceiling of Barajas Airport with bamboo and, at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, installed more than 1,500 trees—including 40 weighing 11 tons—matured off-site for years. Recent extensions to Charles de Gaulle in Paris feature ceilings lined in hardwood.

The rise of design in transportation buildings is not only due to increasingly demanding consumers but also because they function as monuments to the cities and countries that commission them. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, has said that Calatrava’s World Trade Center hub will convey “vitality, hope, and freedom,” while the architect himself adds that the project will transmit “a belief in the future.” Viñoly says that his building for the relatively tiny Carrasco is, like Saarinen’s TWA terminal at JFK, “full of exaggerations” because it is “a statement at a national level.”

The same is true, many times multiplied, of Beijing. The airport’s opening is timed to precede this summer’s Olympics, in which the most populous country in the world will attempt to gain a new level of global respect. With the airport, as well as the Olympic stadium (by Herzog & de Meuron) and the new headquarters for the country’s main TV station (by Rem Koolhaas), a world-famous architect has been enlisted to reinforce the message. Foster says the airport is motivated “by the same sense of civic pride that generated 19th-century train terminals in Europe.” This drives “organizational ability and intelligence” and “craftsmanship,” which he says has largely been lost in the West.

The official name of Foster’s building is Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital International Airport, but it so dominates the existing buildings that it is, in effect, the airport, with the other structures as modest adjuncts. It will eventually handle more than 50 million passengers a year. A few airports are bigger—Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson handles 85 million, Heathrow 68 million—but they are made up of several terminals constructed over decades. Never before has a single airport been built with this capacity.

Beijing is the biggest and most carefree reprise of the big-roof idea that Foster also employed in his designs for the Stansted (1991) and Hong Kong (1998) airports. It is the fulfillment of the architect’s oldest ambition, which goes back to his youthful idolization of Buckminster Fuller, the visionary American engineer and designer. Fuller invented the geodesic dome, an exceptionally light structure that he dreamed could be helicoptered into emergency zones or constructed at vast scales to cover large parts of Manhattan. Foster believes—as Fuller did—that the all-encompassing lightweight roof can liberate. It creates a massive, unobstructed, light-filled space in which you can do anything.

Foster has in the past adapted Fuller’s idea to his hangarlike Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, England, and to the glass canopies he has spread over the Great Court at the British Museum and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Here it is more extensive but also more expressive than his straighter, more tightly disciplined earlier works. Stansted and Hong Kong marshaled vaults into rows. Beijing swoops and sweeps. In response to his Chinese clients’ liking for strong color, Terminal 3 emulates the palette of the Forbidden City’s walls and roof tiles, replacing Foster’s preferred gray with gold, reds, and yellows.

But in addition to engendering calm and civic pride, the shopping, eating, and drinking are essential to the modern airport. Passengers savor such pleasures as a distraction from the tedium of travel and, in the slightly disconnected, light-headed mood that flying can cause, are ready to be seduced into buying. Airports want their passengers to be happy and they also want their money. Names like Prada, Gucci, and Harrods are commonplace, along with smoked salmon, caviar, and Champagne bars.

The British Airports Authority, which runs Heathrow and the other main London airports, makes a significant chunk of its income from retail. Indeed, Rogers’s new Terminal 5 is as much a 216,000-square-foot mall as it is a place for catching planes. The terminal’s restaurant by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay is as big a draw as the architecture (and as trumpeted by BAA’s PR).

If the big roof above is about celestial peace, the retail zone is a seething souk—no matter how elegantly each store might be designed—and the two do not always happily coexist. Foster’s Stansted was designed before the airport retail explosion, and its orderly architecture has been awkwardly encrusted with shops and advertisements. Something similar happened in Hong Kong once that city’s famous commercial instinct took over. Even the serenity of Beijing is punctured by the tacky pagodas and cheap signs of its eateries and shops. Across the 27-year span of the three projects, Foster has not developed much interest in accommodating the intrusions of retail. His approach seems to be restating ever more forcefully his belief in the perfection of his architecture. He is happy with retail “in its place,” he says, but those who perpetrate the domination of shopping “have lost sight of the primary role of an airport. Travel becomes an appendage and a passenger is lucky if he finds a side door going into a tube leading to the plane.”

Viñoly describes the march of retail as a huge problem. He says airport design has increasingly become a question of “tricking the traffic into buying more, which is pretty demoralizing.” Mike Davies, the Rogers partner in charge of Terminal 5, says that as a commercial company BAA’s instinct is to “sweat the assets,” which means turning spare space into profit. But spare space is an essential part of the architecture of Viñoly, Rogers, and Foster. If it gets filled up, the calming effect is lost. Davies compares Terminal 5 with Barajas, which is state-run, meaning there’s not the same pressure to turn profits, and national pride counts for more. Barajas is airier, less compressed, and purer architecturally. It is possible, however, that the average passenger will prefer the superior shopping opportunities of Terminal 5 to the more refined architecture of Madrid.

But the rise of retail makes one wonder if the next step in airport design might be to move away from the big roof to an approach that recognizes airports for the virtual cities they now are. Beijing feels like the high point of its kind, the summit of a half-century tradition going back to Saarinen. What if the image of simplicity were left behind and new airports embraced their multifarious, shifting nature? What if there were a way this could be done without descending into bewilderment and confusion? Airports will always be among the most significant structures of contemporary life, and as life changes they will surely change, too.