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Photo © Leonardo Finotti

Shenzhen Bao'an International Airport Terminal 3

Studio Fuksas

Shenzhen, China

Lights, Camera, Architecture!: Treating an enormous airport as a cinematic experience, a Rome-based firm designs a series of architectural scenes in which light and space play leading roles.

By Clifford A. Pearson

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“I learned a lot about architecture from Hitchcock,” says Massimiliano Fuksas, referring to Alfred, not Henry-Russell. “The way he edited his films and used montage to move them forward affected my approach to design.” When developing his scheme for the enormous (5.4 million-square-foot) airport that opened this past November in Shenzhen, China, the Rome-based architect and his wife and partner Doriana thought of the building as a movie speeding along at 24 frames per second, fast enough for it to seem both continuous and ever-changing.

Size doesn't intimidate Fuksas. “We designed the Fiera in Milan in 30 days and built it in 27 months,” he says, talking about the 2.1 million-square-foot trade fair complex, which features a nearly mile-long glass canopy. For Shenzhen Bao'an International Airport Terminal 3, which replaces a pair of nearby structures built in 2002 (ancient by Chinese standards), Fuksas knew that the basic organization had to be straightforward: departures on the top level, arrivals below, and a large drop-off/pick-up area at one end. The key was manipulating scale—making a gargantuan structure feel welcoming and understandable, while keeping it visually interesting for its entire length.

Fuksas won the competition to design the project in 2008, beating out Foster + Partners, Foreign Office Architects, von Gerkan Marg und Partner, Kisho Kurokawa, and Reiser + Umemoto. The fact that he had never designed an airport turned out to be an advantage, he says, since the client wanted a fresh approach that would make this terminal different from all others. The conceptual spark for the project came from an unlikely source. “Doriana and I were in New York and someone gave us a gift,” recalls the architect. “As we opened it, we noticed the wrapping paper had a honeycomb pattern. It could be flat or bent and it was always beautiful.”

By rolling a honeycomb surface into a tube, the architect and his team could create a unified structure in which walls and roof form a continuous element. To strengthen the tube, the architect made it a double-layered steel structure with enough space in between for access by maintenance workers. While the outer layer is made of flat panels of metal and glass, the inside layer is a three-dimensional lattice of folded metal pieces forming hexagonal openings. Puncturing the inner skin improves ventilation and pulls warm air away from people in the building, a critical factor in a hot climate like Shenzhen's. And the three-dimensional nature of the openings means they look different depending on the position of the viewer. Straight on, they are equal-sided hexagons; from an angle, they flatten out. So as you walk through the building, its envelope seems to flicker and dance as if it were an old film strip.

To vary the experience further, the architect scooped out a series of oblong skylights from the terminal's shell, lining the inner surface with sensuous curves that bring in extra daylight and animate the interior spaces. Throughout the building, the honeycomb surface changes character to break down the enormous scale of the project and tell people where they are. So the departure hall's folded-metal ceiling becomes a flat surface with punched openings in the arrivals concourse. And in an oval ground-transportation center on the southern end of the site, the ceiling is a flush plane with a pattern of perforated and solid hexagons.

Fuksas envisioned the sprawling interiors as an artificial landscape with a rolling ceiling above and about 250 white polycarbonate “trees” rising from the floors to supply cool air and electric light. While the tubular structure of the 0.93-mile-long concourse allows for roof spans of up to 260 feet, some columns were necessary. To reduce the visual impact of the columns, though, the architect tapered them at the base and wrapped them in the same white polycarbonate as the freestanding air-trees. A simple palette of materials and colors (mostly whites and grays) plus polished-granite floors create an almost surreal sense of space and volume. It's not surprising to discover that Fuksas studied painting with de Chirico. “Doriana's idea was that the people in the building would provide the color,” says Fuksas.

Working with the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design (BIAD), which served as the architect of record, Studio Fuksas delivered a terminal that can service up to 45 million passengers a year, a 58 percent increase from the old facility and a figure that makes it the fourth-busiest airport in China (after Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou). The $992 million project, built in just three years, has 63 contact gates and 15 remote gates accessed by shuttle buses. A master plan envisions two more phases—one to be completed in 2025, which will add remote gates and connect the ground-transportation center with Shenzhen's subway system, and another in 2035.

Environmental concerns shaped much of the project. In addition to the porous ceiling that pulls warm air away from travelers and filters daylight, windows are oriented to mitigate solar gain and photovoltaics operate on the roof of a VIP building on the southeast part of the site. Future phases will add enough PVs to generate 10 MW of energy, says the client.

As in a Hitchcock movie or a de Chirico painting, the interior scenography of the Shenzhen airport seems both familiar and strange: its undulating ceiling and sweeping curves draw us forward while adding a delicious note of suspense by obscuring what comes next.

Architect: Studio Fuksas — Massimiliano Fuksas, Doriana Fuksas, partners

Size: 5.4 million square feet

Cost: $992 million

Completion date: November 2013

March 2014
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