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1991 May: Taking Flight

Alastair Best discusses the importance of Stansted in the development of airports - and in the evolution of the Foster oeuvre

Exhilaration, pure and simple: that was my immediate reaction to the new BAA terminal at Stansted, and I see no reason to modify it. This, surely, is the acceptable face of modern architecture: tackling complex human and administrative problems with grace, style and the intelligent application of modern technology. Stansted is also the most acceptable face of Foster Associates.

Norman Foster has a particular genius for applying simple ideas to complex problems; the simple idea at Stansted being that the terminal building should be a large box, through which you progress - in a straight line - from landside to airside. There is none of the maddening indecision, clogged arteries and visual squalor of Heathrow - nor, much though I admire its early phases, is there any of the worthy dullness of Gatwick. How appropriate that for many the Stansted journey will begin at Liverpool Street, one of the finest of all the cathedrals of steam.

Foster’s building perpetuates the noble Victorian tradition of the architecture of mass travel. It borrows some of the intricacy and delicacy of the train shed engineers, and re-emphasises the simple direct progression implied by the railway terminus plan. We need a late twentieth-century social realist painter to celebrate Stansted in the same way that Frith immortalised Paddington Station. For air travellers have suffered indignities long enough. If you put them into an environment as antiseptic as a supermarket and bombard them with canned music and canned announcements, they go into a subhuman, zombie-like trance. This renders them easy prey to the food courts, the duty-free supermarkets and all the other retail devices which provide such an unacceptably high proportion of BAA’s income.

So it is refreshing to find that at Stansted the retailing is a concession in the exact sense of the term. It is tolerated. It is allowed its place. But has been subjected to iron architectural control. Stansted is a triumphant affirmation of the principle that air travel is about higher things. It always used to be. I am old enough to remember the pioneering days of civil aviation, when planes to London landed at Northolt and passengers were led through Nissen huts by men with handlebar moustaches and ‘scrambled eggs’ on their peaked caps. We, and the air crew, would walk together across the tarmac.

Inside the plane (a modified DC Dakota), Barker & Dobson’s barley sugar would be distributed before take-off together with wads of cotton wool to plug sensitive eardrums. In the pocket of the seat was a sick bag - which was frequently put to good use. Air hostesses and in-flight magazines had not been invented. It was an essentially male world, with a strong post-war aftertaste. Heathrow’s first passenger terminal was installed in an army marquee and there were few concessions to comfort.

It has to be said that the romance of flying, in those tentative early days of civil aviation, was largely confined to airside. On landside there was a good deal of unplanned muddle. So I wonder whether Foster, and his client BAA chairman Norman Payrie, are deluding themselves when they speak of a return to fundamentals in airport design. Outside the privately owned airfields which Foster - in his capacity as glider and helicopter pilot habitually visits - I doubt whether the basic air terminal ever existed. Only on a very small scale indeed has it been possible to revert to the primitive sequence of car park, shed and apron. Yet that is what has been achieved at Stansted, and on a colossal scale. And it has been done with masterly conviction and effortless control. This is a building which will give air travel a good name.

Yet even as I write this I am aware that Foster buildings, all Foster buildings, inspire strong feelings, not all of them favourable. I remember visiting the Hongkong Bank with a party of Shakespearean actors - sensitive, perceptive people - and being astonished at how hostile their reactions were. Despite my attempts to draw their attention to minor, and indeed major, felicities in that astonishing building, they remained unmoved. Or rather, they remained adamant in their determination to move, as rapidly as possible, from a large slice of architecture which they regarded as hostile and oppressive.

Banks, even the best banks, can have that effect on people, but very few Foster buildings have been exposed to public scrutiny. So it is worth mentioning that I have heard similar reactions from one that is: the Sainsbury Centre. There are those, for all know the majority, who enter the Sainsbury Centre and, like me, are enchanted by the volume and the constantly changing play of light on its roof trusses and catwalks; and there are those who feel, in some obscure way, that the building has got it in for them. The same evidence can produce diametrically opposite emotional responses.

The emotive power of his buildings is not something which Foster cares to discuss. The word ‘joy’ is part of his public vocabulary, and so is beauty - but they are by-products: they cannot be measured or quantified. Thus the granite paving at Stansted is not justified on the grounds that it looks better than terrazzo which it undoubtedly does - but that it was cost-competitive. And I feel sure that it would be possible to go through the entire terminal building, almost item by item, and demand, and get, similar justification for every design decision that was made. Words like ‘poetry’ and ‘architectural excitement’ are seldom mentioned at client meetings and presentations. They don’t sell buildings. But these virtues survive. And a good thing too. Foster may have had to sell his design to the hard-nosed engineers of the British Airports Authority. But BM, in its turn, has to sell Stansted to the flying public.

The new terminal is the Iynchpin of what has become - by stealth or by default - London’s third airport. It has been a long haul. Stansted was built by American engineers in 1946. Seven years later, in 1953, it was identified in a Government White Paper, as a reserve third London airport. Then there was a good deal of dithering. Public inquiry number one produced another White Paper of 1967 which confirmed the findings of the first, but the following year a second public inquiry resulted in the selection of Foulness as a better, or less controversial choice (possibly on the grounds that Brent Geese don’t have the vote).

Then, after some work had started on site, Foulness was cancelled and new terminals at Heathrow and Gatwick were proposed as a short-term measure to alleviate airport congestion. Not till 1979 was there an unambiguous Government decision to convert Stansted into a third London airport. Foster Associates were duly briefed in 1981. So the new terminal has been in gestation for 10 years. That is a long time by Foster’s normal quicksilver standards, yet it does not appear to have blunted his cutting edge. The Stansted terminal has all the immediacy of the Computer Technology air tent, inflated one cold February morning in 1970 in 55 minutes.

But unlike that temporary office structure, and unlike all other Foster buildings, the terminal has to appeal to, and meet the needs of vast numbers of ordinary people. Eight million air travellers in the present phase, 15 million when, or if, the additional two bays are added at the western end and one on the eastern. This is Foster’s first genuinely public building. For a man who believes passionately in the democratising force of architecture and the ability of flexible plan forms to respond to social change, it is odd that much of his career has been devoted to ministering to the often specialised needs of industry and commerce.

It is worth recalling that if Foster’s entry for the Newport School competition of 1967 had won, instead of being an honourable runner-up, his career as a public sector architect might have been very different. The Newport School project is so central to Foster’s development as an architect, and the ancestry of Stansted so closely bound up with it, that the scheme is worth examining in some detail. The late ‘60 s was a period of experiment, in education as in almost everything else. Cedric Price had launched his influential Potteries Thinkbelt - a sort of university of the railway tracks - and there was a new and welcome emphasis on the learning process.

This, it was conceded, did not start, or stop, with school. Education was continuous and it could be conducted in offices, supermarkets or sheds just as effectively as in the repetitive classrooms and lecture theatres of conventional education. I do not happen to believe that Foster’s Newport proposals stemmed from any deeply held educational theories; but what is beyond question is that they were strongly influenced by the Californian Schools Construction Systems Development (SCSD) which Foster must have seen in prototype form on the Stanford University campus.

The core of the SCSD scheme was a deep roof, with integrated services floated over a deep-plan space. This had many attractions, since it disposed, at a stroke, of all sorts of formal concerns like plans and elevations with which architects habitually get bogged down. There was no plan. There wasn’t even much in the way of elevations. The level roof line was composed of trusses which could be repeated until the site, or the budget, decreed that they should come to a halt. ‘Begin at the beginning’, said the King to Alice, ‘and go on until you come to the end. And then stop.’ Except that there was no true beginning and no logical end. It was all middle. Even now, Foster cannot bring himself to terminate his buildings. Only Willis Faber, imprisoned on its free-form site like an omelette in a pan, is complete in itself. All of his great sequence of sheds, from Newport to Stansted, imply unlimited lateral growth.

For the Newport scheme, Foster took the open-plan, space-frame roof idea and honed it and enlarged it into an immense 137m x 80m rectangle covered by a 1.2m deep roof of welded lattice trusses. Below the constant roof level, floor levels could change; either in response to the contours of the site or the needs of the brief. Double-height spaces were created by falls in the terrain, or simply gouged out of the ground. Because it was never built, the purity of the Newport concept was never compromised.

The closest it came to built reality was the pilot head office which Foster Associates designed for IBM at Cosham, outside Portsmouth, in 1970-71. True, there were significant changes, dictated by time and cost. The roof line was a constant, but so too was the floor slab. And sight lines, crucial in a deep-plan office, were badly affected by IBM’s Insistence on floor-to-ceiling height compartments for their senior personnel. Partly as a result of this, the building, for all its sophisticated opportunism, was a remarkably unappealing working environment.

The Newport School was to have had top top-lighting. IBM had none. Artificially lit, deep-plan interiors are gloomy and claustrophobic, the gloom and the claustrophobia rising in intensity as you move towards the centre of the interior. Yet in one way, IBM was atypical, for Foster has always been preoccupied with the problem of introducing natural light into deep-plan spaces. One thinks of the seldom published Skybreak House of 1965-66, with its stepped section and inclined planes of glazing; or, most dramatic solution of all, the sunscoop at the Hongkong Bank, which harvests sunbeams and spills them into the bank’s cavernous atrium.

Stansted builds on the experience of the Sainsbury Centre, and Foster’s first collaboration with the brilliant lighting engineer, Claude Engle, but in essence, it is the Newport School proposal inverted. With all the services banished in the undercroft the roof becomes a membrane for excluding rain and admitting light. As such, the Stansted terminal is Foster’s most optimistic building.

Does it perhaps also mark a new, spiritual dimension in his architecture? Is he, metaphorically, as well as literally, beginning to see the light? In the foreword to the latest in the series of books he is producing on his work, Foster describes a visit to the abbey of Fontenay, in Burgundy. This is not the first time that a modern architect has found fellow feeling with the austere rigour of the Cistercian builders. And Fontenay, with its barrel-vaulted dormitory block and rhythmic patterns of buttresses and arched windows, is exactly the kind of building one would expect to appeal to the architect of the Sainsbury Centre and Stansted. But Foster has been sufficiently moved to conclude quoting St Bernard’s definition of the Almighty: ‘God is length, width, height and depth’. I confess that after seeing Stansted on a cold day in January, my mind kept returning to some lines by that old unbeliever, Philip Larkin:

‘And immediately
Rather than words comes the thought of
high windows;
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air…’

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

 

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