Everything that happens at an airport is conceived and supervised from the aeronautical perspective. Its feasibility as a general system along with its design, construction and even operation are governed by aeronautical criteria. However, the design of this kind of infrastructure requires the participation not only of engineers capable of sizing it and ensuring its aeronautical processes are interlinked, but also of backgrounds which can convert such processes into flows, volumes and spaces.
Architecture is the only discipline that can provide a complementary service to this kind of engineering. It is precisely at airports where this sort of coexistence becomes necessary. An airport during its design phase requires the transformation of concept diagrams into programmes, waiting time calculations into specific flows and traffic forecasts into spaces infused with light. The coming together of engineering and architecture in this environment is an essential symbiosis to design, for instance, what a terminal building is supposed to be today.
In conceptual terms, a terminal building is merely a kind of passage a passenger must surpass to go from a taxi, train or private vehicle to an aeroplane. At first sight, it is quite simple. Nonetheless, the concept becomes much more complex if we take into account that the passenger’s luggage has to travel the same route and that, instead of just one passenger, thousands follow the same route in just a few minutes and that it is all influenced by additional processes that have to run in a highly precise way.
That is why designing a terminal building means, to a great extent, resolving these process flows. From an architectural standpoint, this would involve resolving the ground plan. Flows have to be well sized, intuitive and properly interrelated. Without this, there is nothing. The ground plan provides clarity, accuracy and functionality.
The cross-section provides everything else. It is essential in an airport because the flows organised on the ground plan are separated by means of it. It is where the human scale links up with the scale of aircraft and it is the point where the façade of a terminal takes shape. No air traffic study, flow diagram or traffic forecast works with cross-sections.
In addition to all this, airport building design poses other great challenges which can only be resolved by an architect, such as:
- Dealing with large scales, which are always difficult to resolve from a compositional standpoint.
- Designing buildings that can be easily enlarged, given that the terminals in 2015 do not have the capacity for the amount of passengers the airport will handle in 2050.
- Ensuring that the changing and demanding regulations are fulfilled.
- And lastly, making them efficient and simple to maintain, since they magnify consumption and costs due to their size.
We frequently notice that a large number of passengers become tense, nervous or even anxious as a consequence of having to travel. Not knowing where they have to go or the processes they must surpass arises these feelings. But, have you ever wondered what happens when you experience the total opposite? And, have you wondered why, in the same situations at different airports, you feel calm and in control of the situation? If it has occurred, it is very likely it is thanks to the architecture and behind the design there is a professional (in fact, many professionals) who, as the Spanish architect Alejandro de la Sota said, is the only one who “sells a pig in an open poke” (*).
(*) Alejandro de la Sota changed the Spanish idiom “gato por liebre” for “liebre por gato” meaning an architect will always give you more than agreed.