Architecture: ... but still a little rough around the edges

Backstage, technical problems slow things down.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Why?" was the question that caused the computer Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey to shut down. Now the same question is being asked of HACTL, Hong Kong's Air Cargo Terminal and the largest automated cargo racking system in the world - capable of moving one thousand containers at any given time - which failed to deliver the goods when Hong Kong's new Chek Lap Kok airport opened in July. Two big buildings with the capacity to handle 2.5 million tonnes of cargo per annum - more than twice the capacity of its nearest rival at Heathrow - failed to make the changeover smoothly when the old Kai Tek airport closed. As several days' supply of rotting food and flowers, newspapers and containers built up, the embattled main cargo operator, the new Superterminal 1, shut down for nine days. Dust in the computer has been blamed but there is still a question mark hanging over the ability of the HACTL at Superterminal 1. Was man or machine to blame? The answer lies in a Commission of Enquiry now going on in a politically sensitive arena. Airport Authority chairman Wong Po-yan has accepted the blame for the disastrous opening, and will step down this month together with the entire 15-member authority board and several key executives, including the chief executive, Hank Townsend, who was given overall responsibility for the construction and development of Chek Lap Kok.

Film directors seeking a location in which to film Philip Kerr's novel GridIron, about a computer that outsmarts the architect of an "intelligent" building, need look no further than Norman Foster's Superterminal 1. He designed the seven-storey cargo-handling building for HACTL, linked on two levels with the Express Centre, dedicated to express cargo and courier operations, "in layers, like an onion".

Superterminal is the largest single automated air cargo terminal in the world, and because the speed and functional efficiency of an air cargo facility depend on the number of access points to the terminal, it has a jaw-dropping facade over two kilometres confronting the new airport. It took two years and nine months to build. At the peak of construction over 2,500 workers were on site. Cargo arrives at the HACTL terminal directly from the aircraft, where robotic cranes lift them into designated pigeon holes. At its core is a triple-height atrium which brings natural light deep into the building. On the east and west sides, great steel-framed racks pigeonhole cargo for processing. It then passes via bridges to the warehouse where it is unpacked, checked by Customs and Excise and transferred to the storage system for up to two months, or loaded on to trucks. Like a factory production cycle, empty containers fill with new cargo and are loaded on to waiting freight planes. The whole system is controlled by a central computing system (COSAC), developed and marketed by HACTL, which can identify any particular item as soon as the in-bound aircraft leaves its airport of origin, and tracks it until it is collected.

The Express Centre, which can handle livestock from elephants to whales and precious goods, including racing cars and shipments of diamonds, cash and gold bullion, has two large hydraulic lifts capable of lifting fully loaded 20m long trains. With so much automation, Foster was keen to put a human face on Superterminal 1 by building in facilities for the airport staff, many of whom live on Chek Lap Kok island.

A gym, three squash courts, four badminton courts and a 25m heated outdoor pool are just some of the perks. There is a rooftop garden planted with mature trees which anyone who has read GridIron might want to check out as a haven for the next time the computer throws a wobbly.