An Olympian construction: Beijing's new departure in air travel

The latest terminal to serve the Chinese capital, designed by Lord Foster, is billed as the largest building in the world. It is also one of the strangest. Clifford Coonan has a glimpse inside
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The Independent Online

To descend the walkways into Beijing's gleaming terminal 3 is to enter China's vision of 21st-century air travel and, more than that, Chinese authorities' vision of their country. That most ancient of Chinese symbols, the dragon, is overlaid with state-of-the-art technology to produce an airport building that is beautiful, efficient and environmentally sustainable.

The newly wealthy citizens of a confident, powerful China will be treated to what is hailed as the world's biggest building. Designed by Lord Foster and built by the British-based global engineer Arup, the terminal caters for a rapidly expanding middle-class in China, keen to exercise their new financial muscle by taking to the skies. The project was delivered in four years, less time than it took to start even drawing up the plans for Heathrow's Terminal 5.

Beijing's reconstruction, and transformation, from a 14th-century capital centred around a cosmological axis and the Forbidden City, has been the most dramatic building project the world has seen in peacetime.

And now it has its airport. It is stunning. A golden roof slopes gently above the glass and steel main structure, and the skylights dotting the top of the building are designed to let natural light into the terminal, which is just under two miles long. They look like the raised scales on a mythical dragon's back.

"The design responds to the client's requirements for a world-class airport with an environmentally responsible design and the need to be able to generate something special that can be modulated and built very fast," said Rory McGowan, the director of building engineering at the Beijing office of Arup. "The interior has an asymmetric, curvaceous and spacious interiors but with modular features that allowed it to be built on schedule and for the machinery and electronic systems to be installed in a modular way."

Along with the CCTV Tower, designed by the Dutch superstar architect, Rem Koolhaas, and the Herzog & De Meuron Bird's Nest stadium, both also built by Arup, the airport is yet another of the towering architectural achievements that have marked the Olympic preparations. Norman Foster's triumphant creation will wow visitors when they touch down in August for the biggest sporting event on earth.

Beautiful as it may be, the airport raises several issues. The rising number of air travellers is a nightmare for environmentalists watching as China's carbon footprint begins to mimic that of the West. And although the structure has brought attention back to the Olympic preparations, the debate about human rights issues, China's role in Darfur and the Tibet and Xinjiang questions are not going to go away.

The Olympics are a source of great pride to the Chinese, and a £3bn makeover of the city is intended to show the world the progress the country has made in the past 30 years of "socialism with Chinese characteristics".

The terminal is actually three buildings connected by a train and is similar in design, in some ways, to Lord Foster's Chep Lap Kok airport in Hong Kong, particularly in the descending walkways entering the building.

Given that Hong Kong airport regularly wins best airport in the world prizes, and that Beijing's present over-stretched international terminal is way down the list of the world's favourites, passengers who use the airport regularly are hoping some of that Hong Kong efficiency rubs off on the new Beijing terminal. Inside, the feel of the airport is similar to that of Stansted or Chep Lap Kok, and follows Lord Foster's principle about airports being like hangars, one big room rather than a lot of fiddly spaces which serve only to confuse passengers.

"In old airports, people feel disoriented," Mr McGowan said. "This modern design gives you a sense of direction. The orientation of the roof means you have a directional flow."

Dotted with traditional Chinese symbols such as red pillars, there are elements of the ancient temple here, all interwoven with contemporary technology and design and topped by an aerodynamic roof. Although it is not clear how much of an involvement feng shui advisers had in the airport – the necromancers who decide the most auspicious way to construct a building played a role in Lord Foster's other constructions such as the HSBC headquarters in Hong Kong – the building is laden with vital and lucky symbolism.

The dragon shape is a sign of strength and a harbinger of luck in China. The terminal is shaped like the character for ren, which means "people", an auspicious term, and also a politically correct one in China, which is still communist in theory. The colour scheme, running from yellow to orange to red, is also in auspicious colours and, of course, the hint of dragon scale serves only to underline its lucky aspects.

"Terminal 3 will be one of the world's more environmentally sustainable airports and has been designed to respond to Beijing's cold winters, hot summers, short autumn and spring seasons," Mr McGowan said. "The 'scales' on the roof are oriented south-east, directed in to capture the winter sun, warming the building on winter mornings and make the most of available daylight during normal operational times and then to maximise shade in the summer, while still providing natural light."

The building also has integrated environmental control systems to minimise energy consumption and carbon emissions. It is 17 per cent bigger than the combined floor space of all of Heathrow's terminals, including the new terminal 5, which is one third the size of Beijing's terminal 3, and has taken 20 years.

The addition of the terminal in Beijing and a third runway will provide what is already China's busiest airport with the capacity to support the Games and allow up to 90 million passengers a year by 2012. Terminal 3 has a state-of-the-art £125m baggage-handling system with 40 miles of conveyor belts that can handle 20,000 pieces of luggage an hour, twice as many boarding gates as the old terminals and nearly 300 check-in desks.

There is a light-rail terminal which will whisk visitors in just under 15 minutes the 15 miles to Tiananmen Square downtown, and the terminal is equipped with the gates and a runway capable of handling the giant double-decker Airbus A380 superjumbo. The airy interior will have 64 Western and Chinese restaurants and 84 retail shops. The terminal cost £1.4bn and that is just for the building alone; with support services and other infrastructure factored in, the project cost £2.3bn.

The increased capacity will place Beijing airport among the top five globally for total passenger numbers, alongside Heath-row, Europe's busiest airport; Atlanta, the busiest in the world, Asia's busiest airport, Tokyo Haneda, and Chicago O'Hare.

Flights will start from the new terminal on Friday, and British Airways will be among the first six airlines to use the terminal. The remainder will be transferred next month.

Considering the fanfare to launch the other signature buildings for the Olympics, such as the Water Cube swimming venue, the opening of the airport was relatively low-key. Most media were not told about the launch, the Beijing Olympic organisers were not involved in the ceremony, and even some of the partners involved in designing and building the airport were kept in the dark about the event.

The official line was modest. The terminal is "a safe and efficient non-competition venue for the much anticipated Beijing Olympics Games", Dong Zhiyi, the deputy general manager of the Capital Airport Holding Company, said. "We feel very proud of our nation."

It is set to be a major entry point for international travel, an absolute must given that Beijing will become the top tourist destination in the world by 2020.