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1991 May: Airports Come Of Age

Twenty years after its completion, we look back at what Peter Davey, Alastair Best, and Colin Davies had to say when Foster’s Stansted airport opened

We all know the boredom, disorientation and general disagreeableness of airports. As a means of moving from one mode of transport to another, they totally lack the structured and enjoyable experience that catching a train or a boat once had.

It must be admitted that, these days, railway stations are more and more designed to be as like conventional airports as possible and most people’s experience of sea travel is nothing more than joining a slowly moving queue of cars to park in a floating multistory structure.

Yet in the great days of rail, getting a train from St Pancras, Grand Central or the Gare de Lyons was an exciting and not undignified experience. There was a clearly defined sequence: arrival, getting tickets, entrance to perhaps a concourse, then the great shed (partly filled with smoke and steam that gave a veil of mystery to transition), purchasing preliminaries to travel, then, finally, embarkation. Progress through the great ocean liner terminals was not dissimilar in essence, though the streamer-bestrewn act of departure was more ceremonial and the arrival often more humdrum.

In airports, experience is usually completely different. From the highly structured bureaucratic maze of Charles de Gaulle, through the organised chaos of Heathrow, to the haphazard nightmare of many American airports (where each airline has its own terminal), air travel - the mode of transport of our era - has not until now evolved a humanly satisfying way of moving from land transport to flight: in itself, one of the most exciting and dramatic experiences that twentieth-century technology has to offer. Even airports like Gatwick or Kastrup, which started with simple and elegant diagrams, have become overgrown with so many accretions that their original clarity has been lost.

Now, a new generation of airports is beginning to emerge. Stansted is the first. It is not surprising that its main author is Norman Foster who, with his love of flying and preference for bold, simple generative ideas, seems perfectly cut out to invent a new way of approaching flight. His proposal was based on two key propositions. First, the path from land to air should be carefully delineated, agreeable and dignified; and, second, the drama of air travel should be celebrated.

While Stansted is the first of the new generation (that is why so much of this magazine is devoted to it), others are soon to follow. Noteworthy among these are von Gerkan & Marg’s Stuttgart airport, and the projects for Kansai by Renzo Piano and for Marseilles and for Terminal 5 of Heathrow by Richard Rogers. Like Stansted, these airports will offer sensible human progression. They will be capable of extension without dissolving into experiential chaos, and they will be places worth visiting in their own right, not just the abstract environments that now cater for our entrances and exits.

Now, at the end of the twentieth century, at the beginning of which people learned to fly, airports are coming of age as a building type: a truly contemporary type which has its own rationale and organisational structure dictated by modern technology, but which has roots as old as the time when mankind first celebrated journeys.

As most other people will, I went to Stansted by train. After a few stops and starts in east London, the Stansted shuttle whirs satisfactorily through the Essex countryside, taking about 40 minutes to arrive at the white ballast and sapling groves of that most rare artefact a new piece of track laid by British Rail; it is the spur to the airport.

Down in the tunnel and cuttings of the spur, you only get a brief glimpse of the terminal building before arriving in the underground station. This huge cavern with its great concrete side walls is rescued from gloominess by lighting. The long wall is bathed in golden luminance, quite unnecessary for the convenience of the public on the platforms, but which imparts to what could have been a gloomy hole a sense of magic and expectation. As the station becomes more busy, I do not imagine that many passengers will be able to appreciate exactly why it will seem friendly instead of dreary and grim, but the decision to use light rather than cladding will pay off in ways too subtle to quantify.

You rise out of the station on a rather Piranesian series of ramps, bridges and escalators to emerge on to the great platform through transparent devices, the most dramatic of which is an inclined glass enclosed walkway that gradually reveals the enormous porte-cochère that fronts the whole north face of the building. Here, the glass wall has been drawn back by one bay from the edge of the roof, forming a partially enclosed space for those people who have chosen the less dramatic approaches of arriving by car or bus.

This first sight of the building proper immediately reveals its order. From a 36m square grid of square structural support points, long spars fly diagonally to take the loads of the square shallow domes of what seems to be a miraculously light and transparent roof. All the support elements are in white tubular steel reducing their apparent size, and refinement is further enhanced by the pin joints which allow the spars to taper at each end.

In the middle of the diagonal grid of each dome, a square rooflight is created, which is again penetrated on the diagonal by an opaque square, creating four triangles of light. The importance of these is not immediately apparent in the porte-cochère, which is open on three sides. But it becomes much more clear as you work towards the middle of the huge enclosed space.


It must be said straightaway that Foster’s vision of the prospective passenger being able to look through the shed and see the aeroplane in which he is going to take off has been compromised. This was inevitable from the start, and presumably Foster always knew it, but the ideal of the great place, all on one level, has been carried through with fidelity.

As you enter the space, the route is clearly straightforward and, above all the small internal structures that a modern airport needs, the sky can be seen through the huge glazed wall of the south face. The effect of progression towards the airside is enhanced by the subtle device of making the upper four panes of the two flank walls of frosted glass, so that passengers are continually drawn forward by the view of sky and clouds.

The roof supports organise the space in a clear and unfussy way; it seems amazing that the huge expanse of roof can be kept floating with so little apparent effort. The supports themselves are not visually like trees to which they have so often been likened, for they do not have a tree’s elaborate hierarchy of branches and twigs. If an organic analogy is needed, they are perhaps more like gigantic hands, each with four fingers splayed out as props for the roof. In fact, the best similes are not with the world of living things but with nautical artefacts: the rather stumpy bases (which are the tops of tall structures stretching down, down into the basement) containing screens and services topped by the soaring spars and their thin ties are reminiscent of parts of ships and dockyard cranes, and so they impart an almost unconscious flavour of departure and arrival.

When you enter the building, the supports rise from a sea of pale grey granite all over which, whenever the sun appears even for a moment, golden light splashes through the skylights in the shallow domes. Floating luminous and lofty, the domes give an overall sense of scale, completely different to the feeling of placelessness given by the flat and often low ceilings of conventional airports.

But of course, every airport has to house a mass of low level accommodation, ranging from check-in desks to customs and passport control booths, with shops, restaurants, bars and all manner of small service spaces between. From the first, these were bound to conflict with and clutter the simplicity of the main idea. The architects’ response has been to impose a very strong order on the lower structures which is completely independent of the larger order of the building itself.

Almost all the lower work is limited to one height and it is for the most part made up of standard white panels, with touches of grey and stainless steel where needed (for instance in the check-in desks). Other colours are carefully controlled and, on the landward side, are limited to the blue of the seats and the yellow of the directional signs which are sensibly largely corralled in the bases of the support structures. Even the shops, which in the most carefully designed airports create a disorientating amount of visual noise, have been carefully controlled, and their fascias and signage are enclosed within fire-resistant booths. The shops and bars are in a sense aedicules of the overall envelope, with their roofs propped on inclined members which spread out from clusters of four tubular columns that contain service runs.

At its best, for instance in the food court, the relationship of the lower and upper orders works very well. There, one can sit and eat a very decent plate of fish and chips or a satay (I hope that the catering continues to be of the standard with which it has started out) and feel enclosed simultaneously by the surrounding low structures, and by the luminous roof that floats overhead sending shafts of sunlight into the middle of the court.

Where the arrangement works least well the rigid line of the top of the lower work visually chops into the elegance and generosity of the structural order. Nowhere is this more the case than at the landside of the arrivals sequence where people wait to greet their friends. Here, an opaque glass partition which hides all the customs operations simply slices the space into two, leaving the spars which support the customs hall part of the roof apparently baseless, poking up over the partition.

This was far from Foster’s original intention, for the opacity of the screen has been demanded by HM Customs and Excise. When I first saw the building, before it was open, the screen had a fritted white dot pattern, making it semi-transparent and allowing the space to be read as one volume. What seems excessive caution on the part of the customs authorities is perhaps understandable in the present climate, but it is to be hoped that happier times might allow the fritted screen to be reinstated, even if Foster’s original proposal of a fully transparent one may never be realisable.


Fritted screens are allowed at the barrier between the land - and airsides on the two departure routes (inland and international). As you approach the latter, the original intentions become clearer, for space and activity are gradually revealed as a continuum, so there is no great shock when you pass through the screen and come up against the experience of the great glazed expanse of the south wall with its panoramic view of the runway.

Here on the airside, you can choose to linger and buy duty-free things, or have a meal or a drink, but sooner or later you will leave its softly carpeted quietness and take the shuttle rail connection to the satellite. The little cars, which are now such a common feature of contemporary airports, simply draw up outside the glass wall under a row of open bays that are essentially similar to the porte-cochère on the other side of the building. You simply walk through the wall and are immediately in a sort of horizontal glazed lift (very different this direct access from the clumsy connections normally contrived).

The shuttle quickly whizzes you underground into a concrete tunnel. Particularly if you sit looking out of the front window, there could be no greater experiential contrast than between this and the calm and luminous space from which you started. The train arrives in the underground bowels of the satellite whence you rise by escalator or lift to the top floor. Here you sit in a space with fully glazed external walls looking over the parked planes and runway, waiting for your flight to board. I can think of no airport that gives the passenger a more direct contact with the drama of flight. Here, in a sense, Foster’s original ideal of putting the traveller directly in visual contact with the means of transport has been fully realised, even if the arrangement is very different from what he first envisaged. In a final act before boarding, the passenger must descend to the floor below to join his plane over an air-bridge.

The satellite is the first of two (the second is being built), which will serve the needs of the terminal as it now stands. The existing eight million flight a year capacity of the main building will be increased to 15 million by simply adding new bays on each side and re-organising the lower structures. There will be none of the piecemeal, hugger-mugger agglomeration that has made so many airports confusing. New satellites will be built as they are needed.


In reverse, the process in the satellite is, as usual in airports, more functional and less restful. An ingenious system of interwoven but unlinked routes conveys incomers separately from outgoing passengers down to a shuttle platform. (Emigrants and immigrants must NEVER be mixed on the airside for all sorts of reasons.)

On arrival at the terminal, passengers have one of the best perceptions of the space in the huge immigration, baggage-handling and customs hall. At first, this seems to be linked directly to the departures part of the airside but, of course, connection between them has to be carefully filtered through transfer control. The space may be very large, but it is much more noble, generous and ceremonially welcoming than the poky bureaucratic warrens that greet the traveller in most airports. At night, light shines up into the domes of the roof from the top of the bases of their supports. The whole space is bathed in a warm glow reflected from the roof.


If Stansted has not totally lived up to the original intentions of its designers, it marks a wonderful step forward in airport design. As a building type, one of the building types of the twentieth century, airports have so often turned out to be disappointments. Functional they may be, but the functions that they cater for are those of the myriad operators, rather than their customers. They mark one of the most exciting, romantic (and disturbing) experiences known to most of us and never seem to be able to express any appropriate response or suggest suitable rites of passage.

In contrast, the experience of Stansted can be analysed in archetypal terms. Such a description might run something like this: the entry is through a grove (or it will be when the trees on the sides of the railway cutting have grown up). The arrival is in a cave from which the passenger gradually ascends to a huge luminous tent. After passing through clearly organised stages of preparation, and arriving at a point where the initiate can contemplate the heavens, he is plunged underground again to arrive at a jetty whence he boards his aerial vessel.

Only certain sorts of architectural critics will think of the building in this kind of way (just as well probably), but I have used the description only partly in jest, for Stansted does have great presence that comes from an architectural understanding of the human and individual drama of taking to the air. It marks the moment when airports grew up.

Client Stansted Airport
Lead designer Foster Associates
Quantity surveying services BAACL
Structural engineering Ove Arup & Partners


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