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Published in The Plan, May 2006.

The new terminal area at Madrid's Barajas airport by Richard Rogers and Estudio Lamela

If airports have become machines for processing people and baggage, then architecture should be the art of humanising that process. Airport traffic is growing at the rate of 8-10% annually, a doubling in numbers of over the last 7-8 years. Airport terminals are forced to process far more people than ever before, and, with two specific commercial forces driving the industry - the booming traffic in low-cost travel - and the increasing consolidation of airlines into international airlines (which may result in the operation of just 4-5 major airlines in a decade's time) - change is the only constant.

Changes at every conceivable level - physical, infrastructural, technical, technological, commercial - have meant that airports are in enormous flux as urban places. This makes them a 'fascinating' field for architects to operate in, says Simon Smithson, who runs the Madrid office of Richard Rogers Partnership, and oversaw as project architect the design and realisation of the 1 billion euros NAT (New Terminal Area) at Madrid's Barajas Airport (to the north west of the existing Terminal complex dating from 1933), commissioned by AENA (Spanish Airports and Air Navigation) which was formally opened at a private reception of 500 guests by Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatera on 4 February this year. At this event it became clear that the airport will have a huge impact on Madrid's position in Europe. The only task the Spanish need to complete is the Metro connection to the city centre. They have made the new Metro station and hope to complete the track system that will make the building reachable from Madrid's city centre in 15 minutes in the near future.

Skylights illuminate glass flooring

The project is the largest RRP has undertaken to date, 1 million square metres of buildings that make up the Terminal and the satellite (for international flights), and serve three new runways. Approaching the building by road, its undulating linear ribbed metal roof stretches out in front of you, seemingly for a vast distance, on the flat sierra landscape. However jaunty the external image of a terminal seems, air travellers usually brace themselves to negotiate the chaos that customarily defines the assemblage of airport functions. Once inside the new Terminal building, the design never loses its sense of place. With what must be one of the clearest diagrams ever created for an airport building, the experience of getting through the four major steps - is a pleasantly smooth process. At Foster's Chek Lap Kok the traveller also proceeds in virtually a straight line to check in, immigration, shopping and boarding. At Barajas, four linear strips describe this process - entry, check-in spine, processing spine, and pier - each interspersed with a light 'canyon' (three in total), with skylights that filter natural light from above right through the two floors of the Terminal. The architects designed the layout to have minimal dependency on signage, and no corridors.The spacious, streamlined plan also means that significant amounts of retail are accommodated into the building without compromising the transparency of the environment.

Travelators provide links between the departure floors and other levels

The Terminal is part of a long term Spanish government expansion programme for transport infrastructure. Along with Italy and Portugal, the country now invests more in relation to GDP on transport infrastructure than the other EU member states. Its entry into the field has come relatively recently, with the first motorway built at the time of the Barcelona Olympics, and the first high speed rail link for the Seville Expo, while Spain's most important airports have reached saturation point over the last decade. The government was determined that the new Barajas Terminal would have the greatest potential for growth, up to 35 million passengers a year, and offer serious competition to Schiphol, Heathrow, Paris's Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt hubs, as well as new generation airports such as Kuala Lumpur, Kansai, Denver and others. 'The client had the vision and the courage to build big. The impact of the French Grand Projets led a lot of politicians in Spain became interested in big (scale) projects', says Smithson.

Security check area in the departures lounge

RRP won the Terminal competition in 1997 in consortium with Estudio Lamela (and engineers Initec and TPS). Their 50 strong multidisciplinary team of architects, engineers, service engineers and airport planners completed the executive design in two bursts, each six months long. The working ethos was one of close collaboration: at the Madrid site office, the core team of 30 architects, contractor and client sat at desks two metres apart from each other. The fast track construction was completed in just six years.

Roof and exterior

RRP brought their experience of working on Heathrow's rather more slow track Terminal 5, along with their determination to create a credible, socially-oriented response to industry change. All the elements had to be very simple, robust, and flexible, explains Smithson, as the content was likely to change constantly in the future.

The architects looked at a range of spatial options. Foster's Stansted is a single level terminal, but they knew that would not work here. The problem has been that as major hubs get bigger, their upper level gets daylight but the lower levels are shut off from it. Through their search for ways of introducing daylight in all passenger areas and down into the lower baggage collection level, the architects came up with the 'canyon' idea, four bridges between the roof supports made of glass in five layers with an inter layer of plastic. The phasing of the 'canyons' is not only critical to the easy navigation of the space, but also allows passengers experiential respite, and a high degree of visual access (children especially enjoy watching the baggage carousels from above). Above the bridges a sequence of 95 12-metre-wide oval skylights contribute to the overall sense of an airy calm atmosphere free of ceilings that press down on you (elsewhere there are 458 skylights). The friendly appearance of 12,300 ceiling lamps that look like cooking woks add a small touch of individualised character.

Pier viewed from north end showing graduation of
colour applied to steelwork

The architects wanted to introduce welcome drama into the space akin to that of the 19th century railway station, and the result is an abiding sense of being in a church. That is reinforced by the 212,000sqm soffit ceiling clad in laminated strips of Chinese bamboo, a cheap renewable material rarely if ever previously used in this context. Along with the natural Calitha stone floors they give the entire space a tactility and warmth rarely experienced in a terminal building. At the same time, the sheer glazed façade offers a visual transparency between interior and exterior landscape, and a personal sense that at any point in one's trajectory, one is not enclosed. The combined impact of these elements, on top of the space being so simple to use, makes the quality of the experience of the weary jetlagged individual a top priority along side, rather than as a secondary factor to the processing efficiency of the building.

Beneath the sine waves of the bamboo-clad steel roof's continuous surface, the linear concourses are given rhythm and movement by their inclined support pillars, painted to create a kilometre long vista of graduated, rainbow colour (at the south end, from red to pink, at the north, from blue to green) that gives zing to the tired senses. It is a rhythm set up in tandem with the undulations of the roof, one that seems to offer a visual metaphor of breathing architecture. The low energy consumption policy of the design backs up that perception. The working of airport systems and procedures has been modernised and improved, with high speed belt conveyer systems (topped by expressive air conditioning ducts reminiscent of fog horns, an example of RRP's typically exposed structural design). The architects made sure that all the secondary elements - including 172 check in desks, 88 boarding gates, 26 security controls and 58 passport controls - that serve these were designed in as neutral a way as possible.

The structure is a three storey concrete frame above ground, with a 20 metre basement. 'Tree trunks' hold up the steelwork of the roof, stabilised in both directions. The roof extends beyond the cladding line, tipping the emphasis towards it rather than to the façade. An exterior curtain wall is positioned by cables rather than vertical mullions, with shading capable of reducing solar gain hung from the roof overhang, which is propped up by a row of Y-shaped columns. This façade structure is a tensile truss, which in elevation looks like a kipper fish. Their graduations of painted colour (yellow, turning to red) adds definition to the buoyant flair of the structure's design, and a conspicuous yet not overwhelming appearance from the approach roads.

Bespoke light fittings on arrivals level, referred to as 'woks'

The facilities include a satellite building 2 km away connected by an Automatic People Mover (APM) which caters for all the international, non-Shengen flights (and includes its own spa), and adjacent parking buildings with 9000 spaces are very straightforward industrial structures clearly expressing their use. An intelligent parking system, with a sensor above each bay so the computer system can relay the geographical position of free spaces on screen before take your ticket, is designed to minimise parking time.

Baggage reclaim area offers waiting passengers a wide view of the airport

The new Terminal, which has already won a number of awards, harmonises the many valuable forces at work in its design. It is a jewel produced by Spain's long running building boom that a wide public can enjoy. Its quality underlines the country's exemplary political commitment to the highest standards in design and the capacity of architecture as a conduit for cultural change. It demonstrates that functional architecture can coexist with beautiful, vibrant places, and that airports as a typology can still represent a brave new world, in the hands of the right patrons and architects.

© 2018 Lucy Bullivant
all photos by Manuel Renau / © AENA

Undulating internal
bamboo roof