Leading Architects will design the airports of tomorrow

At the beginning of XXI century, the airport terminals have become one of the most important buildings in the modern world, speaking volumes about the countries they are located in, progress and economic status of the region. Air links, which connects the cities or states, are the pillars of trade, travel and cultural exchange. Airports are the first things people see while arriving in foreign countries, making an important first impression and being a display of nation’s ambitions or status. They cost billions of USD to built and are the iconic landmarks seen by millions of people annually. That is why famous architects all over the world are more and more interested in designing them. It is not an easy process though, as architects have to cooperate very closely with engineers and subordinate to master plan creators. This often doesn’t give them much room for creativity and makes their work much tougher and confined. Not all of the famous architects feel well in such situation. The fact is however that the prestige and recognition of airport projects often pushes them into it. At the moment the world leave and breathe a couple of new greenfield airport projects linking it with the respectable architectural and designing firms. The most notable ones, where the designers have been already announced are Beijing Daxing Airport, Istanbul Grand Airport or Mexico City New Airport.

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Selected airports from the 2015’s Top30 Word’s busiest airports list.


Mexico City New Airport

When we look at the flat, vast and empty land around 43 kilometers to the northeast of the Mexico City center, it is hard to believe that the one of the most impressive buildings ever constructed will take shape there. It is a specific place, being in fact a seabed of drained lake which is extremely hard to built, due to high percentage of water in soil. This requires special techniques which will enable the construction to “float” in the unstable land. The mountains visible in the distance as well as nearby active volcanoes called Popocatepelt and Iztaccihuatl remind that this place is in seismically active. Both of those peaks which are the second and the third highest mountains in the Mexico, can be seen from Mexico City if the weather is good. They measure accordingly 5230 meters and 5423 meters being a real danger to the local communities. Mexico City lies at the intersection of three tectonic plates and in 1985 was struck by the massive earthquake of magnitude 8,0 causing a death of thousands of people. This all, makes the work of designers and builders of New Mexico City Airport extraordinarily difficult. The new Airport is intended to replace the existing Benito Juarez International Airport (MEX) once completed in 2020. The early ground works began in 2014 and the construction itself should start this year. In last fiscal year ending 2014 MEX handled slightly less than 40 million passengers making it busiest in Mexico and second largest in whole Latin America (only after Sao Paulo). This means that the new airport will have to be enormous and easily expandable. It is not possible to enlarge MEX which is located too close to the city center, surrounded by many buildings and settlements. That is why while thinking about the land for the new airport, government thought about the place which is big enough to fulfil all the current as well as the future requirements.


New Mexico City Airport – Render by Foster+Partners

The new project is expected to reach the capacity of 50 million passengers per year straight upon opening. It will have 3 active runways then. Ultimately the new airport should be able host 120 million passengers and be equipped with 6 separate runways. The design is absolutely astonishing resembling letter X and draws inspirations from Mexico’s traditions and heritage mixing it with ultra-modern materials and shapes. The airport will be just one terminal complex with very light, state of the art roof and unseen form. The air bridges to the planes will be integrated with the building, making it unique and creating a giant glossy sculpture which will be 1,5 kilometers long and almost 600 meters wide. Foster and Partners in cooperation with Mexican Fernando Romero Enterprise (FR-EE), Netherlands Airport Consultants and Arup design this marvel. Sir Norman Foster is one of the greatest architects in the world, additionally closely connected with aviation. He joined Royal Air Force at the age of 18 and for the following years airports have become his true passions and hobby. The first airport he designed was London’s Stansted Airport. This project is considered revolutionary and groundbreaking. It brought sunlight through the roof, changing the atmosphere of the airport and beginning a new era in planning the terminal buildings.


Stansted Airport – by Oxfordian Kissuth is licensed under CC  BY-SA 3.0

Since then they have become more spacious and lightsome. The construction process was finished in 1991, but it was just the prelude of Mr. Foster skills and creativity. In 1998 another game-changing airport designed by his firm was opened. Hong Kong International Airport extends the design principles of Stansted with lightweight roof and bringing natural light into the construction.


Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) – by Wylkie Chan is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

To build the airport, it was necessary to level off 100 meters high mountain on the small Chek Lap Kok Island to only 7 meters. Additionally, extensive land reclamation process was needed to make the area large enough to accommodate this massive airport. Another showcase of Norman Foster capabilities was Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital Airport in Beijing. Finished in 2008 straight before the Olympic Games terminal building has become the biggest in the whole world, later surpassed by Terminal 3 in Dubai.


Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) – by AloTrip International Limited is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

It has increased the capacity of PEK by 50 million passengers per year and culled from the Chinese history and symbols. Foster was also responsible for such beautiful airports like Queen Alia International Airport in Jordan finished in 2012 or expansion of Tocumen International Airport in Panama. Norman Foster is also the architect who designed Reichstag reconstruction in Berlin, New Wembley Stadium in London and many more.

Istanbul Grand Airport

Near the small town of Tayakadin, just next to the Black Sea coast, in the European part of Turkey hundreds of diggers, sheepfoots and trucks are relentlessly leveling the nearby mountains and preparing the land for the construction of Istanbul Grand Airport. Each day thousands of tons of sand and soil are removed and taken away from the area. The works are speeding up and are precisely planned. New airport will be around 35 km, as the crow flies, from the city center of Istanbul. Currently the largest city in Turkey has two civil airports: Istanbul Ataturk Airport (IST) which handled 61 million passengers in 2015 and Sabiha Gokcen International Airport (SAW) which hosted 28 million passengers last year. Despite energetic efforts and constant modernization, the above hubs don’t have enough capacity to fulfil the city’s needs in the next decades. IST location in the middle of sprawl, categorically rules out the further expansion of the airport. Its throughput will most likely reach around 70 million passengers per year before the new airport will be finished but this is absolutely maximum which is possible to handle. SAW airport has capacity of 25 million which has been already exceeded. It was build to support IST but right now it is not enough and the country had to find the new way to ensure the unconstrained growth of the aviation in Istanbul and Turkey. That is why a new bold plan was created to build one of the biggest airports in the world on the Black Sea coast, northeast from Istanbul. The project is impressive. New airport should be able to handle 90 million passengers once the first construction phase is finished in 2018. It will additionally have 3 runways but it is just the beginning. Ultimately the new airport will have a capacity of 150 million passengers (some rumors suggest even 200 million) and 6 independent runways which will most likely make it second largest airport in the world, just behind Dubai Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC).


Istanbul Grand Airport – Render by Haptic Architects

Once Istanbul Grand Airport is finished, IST will be closed, and its traffic will be fully transferred to the new hub. Projecting this airport is another example of great vision and ambitions of Turkey to remain the leading aviation power in the world. Its passenger terminal will be designed jointly by Nordic – Office of Architecture, Grimshaw Architects, and Haptic Architects. The roof of the building will look very tall and futuristic and along with the whole terminal will cull from Turkish rich culture and history. The entire structure will be the largest airport terminal in the world under one roof with a floor area of 1 million square meters. From existing terminals only Terminal 3 in Dubai is bigger but is not a single structure. Nonetheless, it measures 1,7 million square meters of floor space. Terminal 1 at Istanbul Grand Airport will be equipped with skylights providing the natural daylight. Designing of new Istanbul airport is not a first such project for the consortium of companies which design it. Nordic was involved in creating Oslo Gardermoen Airport (OSL).


Oslo Gardermoen Airport (OSL) – by Cccc3333 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The architects gave it its unique Scandinavian feeling with wooden beams on the roof as well as wooden, cozy and elegant elements in the interior. The new airport has become the icon of the country, and it is not strange why Nordic was selected to extend the OSL capacity from 28 to 35 million passengers per year. The passengers will be able to admire Nordic vision from 2017 when the new space is open. Grimshaw Architects most important airport design work was Zurich Airport airside and landside expansion finished in 2004. It was also involved in the team creating new terminal at Pulkovo Airport in St Petersburg (LED). Haptic Architects was inter alia behind the design of Guggenheim Museum in Helsinki. In the separate competition, Pininfarina and AECOM control tower’s design was selected.


Control Tower at Istanbul Grand Airport – render from iGA webpage

The shape of it will resemble tulip which is a symbol of Istanbul. Pininfarina is the Italian design studio known for its car design and cooperation with Ferrari, AlfaRomeo or Maserati. AECOM is a global architectural and engineering firm.

Beijing Daxing Airport

The plan to merge Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province into the one megapolis has been known since 1980’s but in May 2015 President of China Xi Jinping endorsed this idea and authenticate practicality of it. The reason of creating this behemoth is to better integrate the north of China and make it more competitive against the better growing south of the country. The created urban organism will account 130 million people and is called Jingjinji by Chinese. The city will have an unprecedented size and it is currently hard to predict how this experiment will end. The detailed documentation is not available yet but Beijing will remain the cultural and economical center focused on transport, communication and technology. Tianjin will become the research and development cluster for the manufacturing as well as largest port in northern China. Hebei will be the “producing” province where all factories will be located. In the middle of those bold plans lies Beijing Daxing International Airport, new hub being built to serve the region.


Selected airports from the 2015’s Top30 Word’s busiest airports list.

It will be located around 50 kilometers to the south of the capital, between Beijing and the city of Langfang. Tianjin is about 90 km from the new airport and Baoding around 100 kilometers. The new airport will unburden heavy congested and working at its limits Beijing Capital Airport (PEK) which handled slightly more than 90 million passengers for the first time in 2015. PEK has no place for expansion and the second airport serving Beijing, Nanyuan Airport (NAY) have the capacity of only 6 million. The latter will be closed once Daxing airport will be finished around 2019. Upon completion, it will have a capacity of 45 million passengers per year, but ultimately around 2040 it could handle as much as 120 million passengers yearly. It will also be equipped with 7 runways (6 civil and 1 for military use only). The airport terminal was designed by ADPI (architectural and engineering specialist for airports – part of Aeroports de Paris) and the famous Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. It is the first terminal building created by Hadid company and is very sad that this incredible, skilful person will not be able to see the results of her work as she passed away on the 31st of March 2016.


Guangzhou Opera House – by Mr a is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

However, her legacy will live on in the incredible buildings she created like London Aquatics Center, Bergisel Ski Jump, Guangzhou Opera House and many others scattered around the world. ADPI has been working on so many airports that it is even hard to count being one of the leading firms in that sector. Daxing Airport terminal will resemble a massive mutant starfish and surely becomes one the most beautiful airports in the world.

These three impressive airports along with Dubai Al-Maktoum International Airport (DWC) or New Airport in Ho Chi Minh will shape the future of modern airports showing what is possible in airport design and creating trends for the next decades. There are however many airports in operation which plans became the landmarks and a showcase of architect’s capabilities and creativity. First of them which I would like to recall is Kansai International Airport (KIX) built in the middle of Osaka Bay. It was constructed on the artificial island, and it was a pioneer in such structures, later repeated and enhanced by Hong Kong or Seoul. New airport had to be resistant to the earthquakes and typhoons frequently striking this region. As it was located in the bay, it could work 24/7 and became an international gateway to industrial and business oriented cities of Osaka and Kobe as well as two former capitals full of historical buildings and sites, Kyoto and Nara.


Kansai International Airport (KIX) – by 663highland is licensed under CC BY 2.5

Opened in 1994 began a new era in airport construction in which everything become possible, and every challenge could be resolved. The person responsible for the design of this incredible project was Italian architect Renzo Piano who was behind of many significant structures, including the master plan of Potsdamer Platz in Berlin.

Another example of breakthrough design is Terminal 4 at Madrid Barajas Airport (MAD) which expanded the capacity of this airport to around 70 million passengers per year. Considering MAD handled almost 47 million travelers last year it is still plenty of room for growth based on existing infrastructure.


Madrid Barajas Airport (MAD) – by Diego Delso is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The terminal was designed by Antonio Lamela and Richard Rogers and is famous of its dark yellowish waive roof equipped with skylights guaranteeing a relaxing amount of natural sunlight in the building. The walls are made of glass and enable a good view of the apron and parked planes. Richard Rogers and his company Rogers, Stirk, Harbour + Partners is well experienced in projecting airports terminals. They created Terminal 5 at Heathrow and just recently won a competition for designing Terminal 3 at Taipei Taoyuan Airport (TPE) in Taiwan.

China is the place where many new airports or airport terminals are being built due to the tremendous growth of local aviation and economy. In the southern part of the country in the city of Shenzhen, there is one I especially admire. Terminal 3 at Bao’an International Airport (SZX) is, in my opinion, an architectural masterpiece. It evokes the manta fish, one of the most spectacular underwater creature alive.


Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport (SZX) – by 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia Studio Fuksas is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The building is 1,5 km long, and the roof of it is covered by honeycomb motif allowing the natural light to the terminal. What is even more remarkable the building looks amazing both from the inside and outside. In 2015 the airport handled almost 40 million passengers and was in the 5th place of busiest airports in China (excluding Hong Kong). Mentioned Terminal 3 was designed by Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas.

I am sure the future will bring many breathtaking airport designs, signed by famous architects because the air transport is constantly gaining importance, being one of the pillars of modern world’s trade and growth.

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