The sky’s the limit

17 January 2008 (Last Updated January 17th, 2008 18:30)

Beijing has taken airport design to another level. Damian Arnold speaks to project architect Brian Timonney.

The sky’s the limit

Visitors to Beijing's new airport will be wowed by the vast interior spaces inside the 1.3-million-square-metre 'dragon-form' terminal, but the architects also hope to beguile them with a design that adds a human touch.

This was the biggest challenge facing the project architects at Foster + Partners when they sat down to design Beijing Airport which will open in February 2008 in time for the Beijing Olympics. "It's been a difficult challenge designing, not only the world's biggest building, but also creating an environment that people feel very happy to be in," says project architect and partner Brian Timonney.

Pepping up the serotonin levels of up to 56 million anxiety-filled passengers has seen the development of a very different airport to the more industrial, clinical spaces that have marked airport design in the last 50 years.

"Locally sourced materials reduced the Beijing Airport carbon footprint."

Situating the arrivals hall at the top of the building rather than greeting passengers with dismal artificially lit corridors in the bowels of the building is a good start. Visitors will alight onto an internal elevated bridge just underneath the single roof canopy and they will enjoy a panorama of the spectacular spaces below.

Inside the terminal, natural materials such as timber are used. Wherever you are in the building, calming green spaces will not be far away. "Most airports are a sea of concrete but wherever you look outside you will see green landscaping or green roofs," adds Timonney. "It's a much more friendly and natural environment."

AIRPORT DESIGN THROUGH THE YEARS

Lord Foster is famously obsessed by aircraft and the 72-year-old is known to spend much of his life up in the skies as he chases the next commission for the his stellar organisation. It's little surprise then that this celebrated British firm is world-class at designing airport spaces.

The sonic journey of his company has taken in airport design competitions all over the globe and two built examples include London Stansted in the 1980s and Hong Kong's Chep Lak Kok in the 1990s. Foster's third major airport in the 'noughties' shows the evolution in planning of spaces that are clear and easy to reconfigure. "Beijing Airport is the culmination of our involvement in airports over 25-30 years that started on the drawing board for London Stansted," says Timonney.

Stansted was revolutionary, with its vast skylights permitting floods of natural light. Services previously integrated into the roof were rooted underground, sprouting upwards in 'service trees' that act as columns throughout the building.

"Hong Kong developed the modular, offsite construction approach and applied it on a large scale."

Hong Kong developed the modular, offsite construction approach and applied it on a much larger scale. Both airports are simple, clearly planned spaces that eschew the labyrinthine corridors of the 60s and 70s.

BUILDING BIG IN BEIJING

The design approach at Beijing ticks all these boxes as lessons learned and applied on the biggest scale yet, with 50,000 construction workers bolting together the factory-built elements like a huge Meccano set. But a human touch was also used and the designers wished to create spaces that felt intrinsically Chinese.

"What differentiates Beijing Airport is right from the beginning there was a very conscious strategy that the building should be rooted in its culture," says Timonney.

The organic feel cascades downwards from the vivid reds and yellows of the ceiling – the national colours of China and a riot of colour evoking the decoration of a Chinese temple. The vast glazed roof slats develop the dragon theme as the scales. And seen from the skies, the up-lit roof evokes a Chinese lantern.

"Both inside and outside the building there is a fantastic use of colour," says Timonney. "Most airports we have used the neutral approach of whites and greys, but our ceiling goes through 16 grades of colour from red to orange to yellow which helps wayfinding because it leads the passengers in the direction in which they are moving."

The achievement is all the more impressive as construction started at the end of 2003 and four years later the massive building is all but finished. Some major construction challenges were overcome, including the roof's 'space frame' with its 50,000 elements and the 30m-high suspended glass wall, both of which had never been done in China before.

"The Beijing Airport design featured a conscious effort for the building to be rooted in its culture."

And apart from Foster + Partners, Siemens and Bombardier, Beijing has been procured, sourced and built by the Chinese and all the concrete, steel and glass has been sourced in China. This, says Timonney, is a major factor in reducing the carbon footprint as shipping in materials, as was the case with Hong Kong, greatly increases the carbon footprint.

Creating a temperate environment while keeping air conditioning and heating to a minimum, was another tough challenge. The climate in Beijing, ranging from
–10°C in the winter to the high 30s in the summer, was another major headache solved by the heavily insulated roof that creates a thermal blanket on top of the building and cladding technology that maximises solar gain and reduces glare.

Environmental lighting controls turn the lights and other services off when they are not needed. "It's a very efficient building because even though there's a huge volume of space, we only light, heat and cool the areas where people are," adds Timonney.

THE AIRPORT CITY

For all the claims Beijing can make, and there are many, it can't say that it is the hub of a truly integrated 'urban aviation community'. For while Beijing, like most airports, is on the edge of the city, in Dubai they are building another city for three-quarters of a million people to live and work in around a new airport that will be the biggest in the world.

Architects have been talking for years about the age of the 'airport city' but Dubai is perhaps the first example of it. UK practice Broadway Malyan has created a master plan for a 140km² site that is twice the size of Hong Kong Island at Jebi Ali, 40km south of Dubai.

The airport itself is designed to serve two billion passengers, the equivalent to one-third of the world's population. The airport will have six runways, three massive terminal buildings and will include 10,000m² of retail space. It will serve 120 million passengers a year, making it the world's busiest (the current busiest Atlanta in the US serves 85.3 million).

The airport will be adjoined by a 'residential city' comprising apartments for 250,000 people, an Enterprise Park and a university. Alongside that will be a 'commercial city of 850 office towers and a golf resort.

The airport is located next to Jebi Ali Port enabling a massive combined air, sea and road logistics centre to be created. As a result 12 million tonnes of cargo a year are expected to flow through the airport.