Terminals: the last word

This Thursday, Heathrow's T5 will welcome its first real passengers. But how does the new building measure up? Simon Calder reveals the best travel hubs in world

Saturday 22 March 2008 01:00

Terminal: that is the outlook for the building that proved the original concept for the modern airport. The revolutionary design of The Beehive, as Gatwick's 1936 circular terminal soon became known, provided a sleek, beautiful interface between two forms of transport – rail and air. Suddenly, northern France was an effortless couple of hours away from central London. But, in a week when Britain's bravest and biggest air terminal opens for business, the original Gatwick airport is about to lose its aviation connection. The Beehive is being vacated by its present tenant, GB Airways, when easyJet takes over next weekend.

The tunnel to the (former) Gatwick airport station has been blocked, and to reach the runway would require a pilot to navigate past several office blocks and across the A23 dual carriageway. In the age of the cheap plane, airline passengers are no longer able to savour the calm bestowed by serene Art Deco lines. The trouble is us, the mass market. At the time this masterpiece was created, the only time the average Brit could get airborne was as crew on an RAF warplane. Today, anyone on the national minimum wage will earn enough in 12 days for an off-peak return to Australia, and short hops to Europe can cost less than the fare on the Gatwick Express train to the airport.

Last year a number equivalent to four times the UK population flew from a British airport. That is 241 million users: every second of every day, an average of eight people begin the often-grim business of going through a UK airport. Airports are people-factories, in which normal people are processed so that they can become airline passengers. You and I submit to a sequence of indignities. We surrender our possessions, hopefully only temporarily. We have our identity checked and double-checked, with fingerprinting compulsory for domestic travellers at Heathrow. And we move into a transportational limbo where shopping is the only option to sitting down and keeping quiet until the airline is good and ready to get us on board, and the air-traffic controllers permit the plane to leave.

As with other industrial plants, aesthetics are trampled in rush for revenue. But could the public appetite begin to change? Perhaps when Terminal 5 opens at dawn next Thursday, passengers will start to perceive time spent at Europe's largest airport as a pleasurable diversion rather than a necessary evil. If so, they will have to give some credit to the great railway engineers. The Victorians and their Continental counterparts understood that a terminus should be a deliberate interruption to the often-tedious business of travel: an important gateway between the mode of transport and your destination, created for your delight.

Victor de Chavarri realised this. A bust of the Spanish businessman at La Concordia station in Bilbao shows an expression of self-satisfaction. He might well look smug, because the terminus that he bankrolled is nothing short of exquisite. The roof is supported by slender steel girders, but the main façade has sturdy classical stone columns that reveal the city to the world. This is the first sight of Bilbao for the new arrival, and frames the view as perfectly as any masterpiece. The three dimensions of the city loom over the station; the Nervion river that provides Bilbao's lifeblood laces beneath it; and grand municipal buildings are arrayed to provide a regal welcome for the traveller who has just paid the princely sum of €7.25 (less than £6) for the three-hour trip from Santander.

In London, Charing Cross does much the same: the final approach on the railways from Kent, over the Thames, presents all that is good – Big Ben, the London Eye, St Paul's – and then deposits you in a humdrum terminus that just happens to be at the heart of the capital.

Airports tend to be some distance from the cities they serve. Unconstrained by urban clutter, they can be free to express the joy of travel. Few of them bother. There are also the special cases of millions of transfer passengers who find themselves in geopolitical limbo as they change planes at a place they neither know nor care about. Yet Schiphol in Amsterdam and Singapore Changi have both grasped the notion that the transit passenger can be pampered out of the tyranny of time zones. Neither airport is much to look at, but they have much to look at, and enjoy.

I happen to have been born a couple of miles from the Beehive, but never flew from it; by 1956 it had been rendered obsolete by the artless angles of what is now Gatwick's South Terminal. Sussex happens to have a second international airport, also an Art Deco confection of the inspirational kind. Stay on the southbound train for 45 minutes to Shoreham-by-Sea, and you can fly, no more than nine at a time, to northern France.

But for those unlucky enough to be reading this in one of the UK's many dreary terminals for trains, boats, planes and buses, you can now drool over the world's 10 best.

St Pancras International, London

The most absurd feature of the triumphant re-opening of Britain's finest railway station was the claim that it possesses the longest champagne bar in Europe: a banal irrelevance compared with the grand scale of the historic Barlow Shed.

The £800m resurrection of the north London station as the start and end of Britain's only high-speed line has been carried out with due reverence to the Victorian rail engineers.

The sense of space created by the soaring span lifts the eye, and the spirits, heavenwards. The harmonious glass and steel curves and stout brickwork provide inspirational punctuation for your journey – even if your final destination is Loughborough, from the annexe in the north-west corner for East Midlands Trains.

Departures, though, are more uplifting than arrivals: passengers coming to London on the Eurostar from Paris and Brussels are funnelled far too quickly into a subterranean labyrinth which eventually ejects the visitor onto a six-lane trunk road with the only brightness in the field of vision being a Burger King.

Changi airport, Singapore

Perhaps, you may reflect as the sun shimmers on the ripples left by your wake, long-haul air travel isn't that bad after all. The open-air swimming pool, complete with poolside bar, is the icing on the cake for an airport that has a simple concept. Approximately, it seems to go like this: you're probably only halfway through a long and arduous journey; you want to get out of here as quickly as possible, but are constrained by factors beyond your control such as airline schedules and unforeseen delays; so we're going to make it as bearable as possible. Free internet access? Help yourself. Hungry? Eat your way around the world from Sudan to Japan. Desperate for a touch of nature in the sterile world of international aviation? Try the indoor sunflower garden, or the cactus garden on the roof of Terminal 1, which is also where you'll find the pool. Keep three things in your hand baggage when take a connecting flight to Singapore: passport, camera and swimming gear. And if you have a long connection (four hours or more), seek out the free city-tour that gives you a glimpse of cosmopolitan Singapore, including a boat-trip on the river.

Zaragoza bus terminal, Spain

Las Delicias is the name for the terrestrial transportation hub in the city that hosts this year's Expo. It translates as "the delights" – not a term usually associated with a bus terminal. Previously, coaches squeezed into cramped stations around the city; Las Delicias concentrates them all in a home where buses cohabit with high-speed trains; this is the halfway point on the new AVE railway line between Madrid and Barcelona.

Spain does bus terminals with a flourish; Madrid's are frantic yet functional, Seville's mimics the scale of the city's vast cathedral, and Cartagena's takes its stimulus from the wheel itself. Zaragoza's dazzling concrete and glass structure is very different. It bestows the sense of wandering into a crystal; planes (in the geometric, not aeronautical, sense) meeting at acute angles, and which give an intuitive sense of purpose to the passenger's progress from street to stand. Buses glide in from Madrid and Barcelona, Bilbao and Valencia, and set out again to speed across the sun-bleached lands of Aragon.

You can see more of Las Delicias in The Independent's online video, '48 Hours in Zaragoza', which is available at www.independent.co.uk/spain

Victoria Terminus, Mumbai

In the continuing Hindu-isation of names, this pinnacle of Indian railway architecture has recently changed its official name to Chhatrapati Shivaji – the same as the city's airport. Confused? You're in Bombay. Or is it Mumbai?

Indian Railways is the world's biggest transport undertaking, and Victoria Terminus is where many of the billions of journeys taken each year begin. It owes an architectural debt to St Pancras in London. Yet the façade of trills and frills is uniquely Indian. "Possibly the most ornate Gothic frontage in the world," say The Men Who Know – the compilers of the Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable.

Circular Quay, Sydney

Half correct; the hub for the ferry services that slice serenely across Sydney Harbour is definitely a quay. But there is barely a curve to be seen; the yellow-and-green vessels moor squarely against jetties poking perpendicularly from a flat concrete quayside.

Location is the key to this quay. The Circular Quay in Australia's biggest city is pinioned by two of the world's great tourist icons, the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. Indeed, the best way to view them is from the deck of a ferry. Take a trip to Balmain and you will sail beneath the bridge, where its muscular foundations are evident (look out for grey-clad figures making the bridge climb. Or, en route to see some masculine surfers, cruise past the Opera House en route to the beautiful Pacific beach at Manly.

Terminal 5, Heathrow

The world's most expensive air terminal will have an unfortunate effect on its predecessors at Europe's busiest airport when it opens to the travelling public on Thursday 27 March. Terminal 5's clean simplicity and soaring scale is such a contrast to the existing facilities (see 10 worst terminals, on page 7) it will destroy what remains of their fragile self-esteem.

If you are among the lucky minority of passengers who find themselves arriving, departing or changing planes at Terminal 5, the experience should be serene; you should "make it from check-in, via fast bag-drop and through security in around 10 minutes", says British Airways, the terminal's only airline. Then you are free to enjoy a building that BA's chief executive, Willie Walsh, calls: "An extremely sophisticated baggage system with a terminal built around it."

Whatever this says about BA's priorities, his new terminal shows how the commodities of space and reason, when applied to a completely new structure, can remove much of the unnecessary clutter from the process of travelling. Be warned, though: turn up at security less than 35 minutes before departure and you are off the plane.

Leipzig Hauptbahnhof, Germany

"This monolithic building could hold several cathedrals", assert The Men Who Know – the compilers of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable. Sixty-seven minutes after leaving the German capital, you arrive at Leipzig's temple to the train. It is the pick of the Continental crop mainly for its sheer scale – its façade is the length of two championship-sized football pitches.

Within its elegant columns there is space for 150 shops and more besides, such as an ice rink in winter. The terminus – which was completed a year into the First World War – provides a proper portal for the city. The only problem is that, after leaving the station, the rest of Leipzig looks a trifle drab.

Amsterdam Schiphol Airport

There's an art to a good terminal building. Or, in Amsterdam Schiphol Airport's case, there's some art in a good terminal building. The city's main Rijksmuseum may have been under repair since 2003, but for the past six years a small outpost has operated – with free entry from 7am to 8pm daily – at the airport itself, bringing a welcome dose of art and culture to disorientated, dishevelled travellers.

Not that there's any need to be disorientated in Schiphol: this vast airport (46 million passengers processed in 2006) may vie with Heathrow, Frankfurt and Charles de Gaulle as one of Europe's main travel hubs, but it does so with elegant simplicity, rather than claustrophobia and panic. Three departure halls and six runways are united in one airy terminal building – designed in a distorted semi-circle – which means there's a fair amount of gliding along on conveyor belts to be done if you have to switch flights, but absolutely no lengthy transfers using groaning monorails or grubby buses. And as for being dishevelled, well, the shopping opportunities at Schiphol are legion: everything from Antwerp diamonds to clogs.

Even true love can be found at Schiphol: since 2006, marriage ceremonies have been conducted here (www.schipholweddings.nl), with couples leaving for their honeymoon aboard the next available flight.

Marseilles Provence 2, France

You could buy at least 200 copies of "MP2", as this breathtakingly simple terminal is styled, for the price of one Heathrow Terminal 5.

MP2 is what happens when designers start with a blank piece of paper and devise an airport terminal that includes everything you need and nothing that you don't: a few check-in desks, though these days many travellers will have already printed out their boarding pass at home; a central point for depositing baggage, rather than a complex series of conveyor belts; a café that serves adequate food and decent coffee at reasonable prices; and concrete corridors leading to the apron and the waiting plane.

Form scrupulously follows function, and by removing any pretence that you are there to have a good time MP2 manages to feel remarkably cheerful. Or maybe it's because you've just been in the South of France.

Easter Island airport

This weekend, a few hundred fortunate folk will be flying in from Tahiti or Santiago de Chile to the world's most isolated airport. If their luck holds, no fog will cloud the final approach of the LAN Boeing 767 – otherwise they face a scarcely credible five-hour onward flight to the nearest diversion airport.

All being well, which over Easter weekend it certainly should be, they will touch down at what is arguably the simplest international airport in the world. The terminal is a small shed with a café attached, which is where transit passengers can sip cafe con leche while they bemoan their short stay on this fascinating island.

But because the terminal is on the edge of the onlysignificant settlement on the island, transit passengers can easily stretch their legs down to the harbour and along the shore to marvel at the mysterious stone heads that populate the island whose isolation is so splendid.

Terminal cases: The 10 worst travel hubs

European architectural prizes are a mystery. The Stirling Prize judges who gave Lord Rogers the 2006 award for his Terminal 4 at Madrid airport had presumably never tried to begin or end a journey there; the transfer to the rest of the airport takes almost as long as the flight from London.

At least Heathrow Terminal 4 has an excuse for its awfulness; the youngest of the existing four terminals was always a hopeless compromise. It is in the wrong place, with half the aircraft movements having to cross an active runway. It also proved inadequate for the mish-mash of airlines that have ended up using it: KLM, Kenya Airways, SriLankan and (the main tenant) BA, though only for some of its short-haul and most of its long-haul operations. As a result, an awkward extra arm had to be bolted on, with some extraordinarily long walks – or, if you are late, runs. Heathrow Terminals 1 and 3 are grim, too: both require you to endure a long and rambling retail labyrinth before you get anywhere near a departure gate. But Heathrow Terminal 2, the oldest at the airport, is much more tolerable – the closest to the Tube and bus stations, and with very short walks to most gates. Too bad that it will be the first to be demolished once Terminal 5 is up and running.

Railway terminals can be grim, too. Far too many British branch lines have been manipulated so that they end their journeys at bleak, exposed platforms rather than handsome station buildings. Morecambe in Lancashire, Sheringham in Norfolk and Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales are the antitheses of excellence.

The grim Marseille ferry port cancels out the city's appearance in the top 10 courtesy of its new airport terminal. Users of the former thread through a tangle of dereliction to get from city to ship.

Russia is mostly a land of magnificence, in terms of terminals, but there are exceptions. Vladivostok, which translates as "lord of the east", is the city where the Trans-Siberian railway ends. Yet its station feels more like East Croydon than the gateway to the Orient. The world's worst airport terminal is also in Russia. Sheremetyevo 2 was created for the 1980 Olympics, and using it is always a Herculean task. Its location off the highway to St Petersburg is awkward; the design possesses in-built bottlenecks (always try to be the first off the plane); and officials appear to connive with the seedy characters who make an arrival at best an ordeal, at worst terrifying. By comparison Heathrow, even though it is handling 55 per cent more passengers than it was designed for, looks the epitome of civilisation.

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