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Air Max: Terminal 3 at Shenzhen Airport by Studio Fuksas Architetto

Completed in only six years, Shenzhenʼs airport terminal is a daunting set piece to encapsulate Chinaʼs economic and architectural ambitions

At the opening of the new Terminal 3 building at Shenzhen’s Bao’an International Airport, dressed in de rigueur black, framed by the pristine, snow-blinding whiteness of their latest creation, Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas literally soared over the seething press pack. It’s fair to say that the fawning Chinese hacks were as much storytelling their own national pride at completing another mega-infrastructural project in double-quick time, as they were commenting on the aplomb with which the Fuksases answered their sanctioned questions, but even so, the Italian duo brought European colour to this monochrome teatro dell’aria.

I was lucky enough to be one of the first to arrive at the new terminal. As everyone flocked off the plane, there was a palpable pioneering spirit of adventure as hundreds of passengers perambulated and escalated, talked and gawped, filmed and photographed their new airport experience. A few teething problems − like an entire planeload of Chinese tourists trying to get on one functioning escalator at the arrival gate − but in general, it was a smooth process. Everything was pristine; preened and polished to within an inch of its life. To say that the floors were so clean that you could eat your dinner off them might be culturally insensitive to the group of Buddhist monks in the main concourse who seemed to be doing exactly that.

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The terminal had been open just one hour before we flew in. Barely one week earlier, my ticket issuer seemed not entirely convinced that it would have been completed as I was scheduled to arrive at Terminal A. Even Fuksas was suitably impressed: ‘This country never fails to amaze with what it can do in such a short time,’ he told me. ‘The terminal was such a long way off being completed … when we saw it just four days ago.’ This is Studio Fuksas’s first airport commission, but Massimiliano and Doriana have developed a first-hand, jetsetting knowledge of airline terminals. With offices in Rome − their home town − Paris and Shenzhen (and with projects in all continents) they spend much of their time living out of suitcases, although they are not noted for slumming it. When in London, The Ritz is their hotel of choice.

The new terminal building allows Shenzhen to handle up to 45 million passengers per year (25 million more than the original airport on the site). Shenzhen airport’s new passenger capacity will be 65 per cent of that of Heathrow (or equivalent to the current capacity of Heathrow Terminals 1 and 4 put together), but built in six years. That’s six years from international competition to completion. Four years and nine months since work started on site in February 2009. For just £610 million, Shenzhen is marking its ambition to be a destination city − of business, tourism and culture − by hosting the fourth-largest airport in China. Two additional phases of airport expansion are planned over the next two decades, each overseen by Fuksas.

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Indeed, this project has really opened doors for Studio Fuksas in China. Here, once you’re in with the in crowd, things start to happen. Fuksas is already building the Guosen Securities Tower in Shenzhen, which is due for completion in 2016, and has just won a competition to design and construct the first cultural centre in Chengdu (where Steven Holl and Zaha Hadid have already made dramatic architectural inroads).

It has now become tediously predictable to observe that Studio Fuksas’s Shenzhen Terminal 3 resembles, on plan, a manta ray. This kind of absurd PR guff has been regurgitated in many articles on this building, but it stems, more simply, from the Chinese client’s desire for symbolic good fortune (the manta ray is believed to have health-giving properties in Chinese medicine). The fact that it doesn’t look anything like a manta ray should have been a giveaway. Actually, like many modern airports, the building has simply been designed with an aircraft motif − with a fuselage, tailfins and wings − designed to maximise the external surface area and hence, the number of boarding/disembarkation points.

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The body of the leviathan is a huge open space − 1.5 kilometres long with maximum clear spans of 8 metres − providing half a million square metres of floor space. Sectioned into three levels, the ground floor will accommodate passenger arrivals and the first floor will be reserved for departures. The upper platform will facilitate public services − cafés, concession stands and lavatories − for visitors and non-travelling public alike. The crossing point of the wings and the body is a vast, light and airy atrium with excellent visibility in all directions. This rounded space generated by the tubular geometries is inherently more generous that the right-angled crossroad corners of many other airport terminals.

The spatial arrangement also maximises the amount of retail space within the atrium. The design clearly reflects shopping mall typologies, but does so in a much more honest − or less cynical − way than many other money-grubbing airports. In this way, passengers shouldn’t have to go through the horrors of leaving behind the opportunity for one last cup of coffee. Even at the furthest gate at Shenzhen’s Terminal 3 you can actually get a pizza with your cappuccino, a fresh fruit basket or a designer shirt. China certainly knows how to capitalise on the capitalist opportunities of a captive market.

Construction is a simple tubular steel space frame disguised by the internal and external undulating skin of cladding and glazing panels. Everywhere you look, there is a relentless hexagonality. One of the more intriguing features (and unintended consequences) of the roof design is that the internal soffit has a three-dimensional quality due to an inherent optical illusion whereby adjoining hexagons appear to bend. Disconcertingly, however much I stared and tried to force myself to see the reality of a flat surface, my brain couldn’t rationalise it. To provide this level of sensory overload, detailed computer-generated measurements were required for each external hexagonal metal panel and operable glass window on the 300,000 square-metre surface area.

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This patterned double-skin canopy of steel and glass allows light into the building and allegedly reduces energy consumption by shielding the space from excessive solar heat gain. Even so, the space is so well lit in places that the hyper-polished flooring reflects the roof and gives the impression that passengers are walking through an oval tube.

Construction quality is very good, although in a number of locations the complexity of the parametric form has proved too much for the contractor. For example, the sweeping skirt of an internal wall hangs miserably in the lower corridor, but this is a complex building and there will inevitably be teething problems. Buckets were already being put down in the main concourse to catch the roof leaks, but this is tabloid-esque nit-picking and only time will really tell how well the building weathers.

Back in the main thoroughfare, some architects might have done anything to maintain a column-free floorplate, but Fuksas chose to prioritise the slenderness of the roof structure by unashamedly incorporating an array of slender white support columns. Bold and tall as they are, they are reasonably unobtrusive while providing some stabilising and much-needed verticality to the prevailing parametric blobbyness. Similarly, the tree-like sculptural forms that pepper the public areas are ventilation shafts designed to break up the space, bring fresh air in at a reasonable height and to provide a human scale to the internal void. Indeed, practically everything has been designed by Fuksas, from metallic reception desks to the pod-like commercial units; from door handles to glazed toilet walls; from check-in gates to the billowing external canopy. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the ubiquitous canoe-shaped seating was provided by a non-Fuksas sanctioned supplier. These cheap moulded GRP seats are the work of someone who has attempted to copy the ‘style’ of the building without actually getting it remotely right.

On this point of design ownership, the client, Shenzhen Airport (Group) Co is so pleased with the project that they are offering to copyright it. Ironically, for a country that has seemingly ridden roughshod over intellectual property rights for many years, China is now rethinking. So on this project, after investing US$1 billion in this project the clients might make a fair assumption that the terminal design is theirs. ‘Why not?’ asserts Massimiliano Fuksas. ‘It is actually an honour for me to be copied,’ he says. ‘When they come to me and say “Can I buy your copyright?”, I say “yes, why not”… actually they don’t know what to do (with it) and so they will come to me − maybe later − to ask me to explain it [to them] and help them [use it] in another project,’ he chuckles. Doriana agrees: ‘For me, having our work copied is respectful. It shows respect. I [want to be] clear that this is not the same as someone copying a new or young architect’s design. That is not respect … that is stealing someone’s work.’

Both acknowledge that they have the luxury of being financially secure and therefore are less bothered about the immediate implications of having their design work appropriated. In other words, someone ripping off their designs causes them less of a problem than it would for more struggling practices, but it is charming to see that this attitude manifests itself as magnanimity, rather than the more commonplace litigiousness. As Massimiliano says: ‘What can I do?’ for it is almost inevitable that this design will be copied … and not just in China.

Fact File

Architect: Massimiliano Fuksas Architetto
Photographs: Leonardo Finotti

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