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How To Design The World’s Biggest Airport Terminal

How do you make an airport terminal that spans 173 acres feel like anything but a monster? Zaha Hadid attempts the impossible in Beijing.

Beijing’s new airport is going to be a monster. At 7.5 million square feet, it covers about the same amount of space as 130 football fields put together–all within one terminal building.

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Zaha Hadid Architects, the firm charged with designing the new terminal along with French airport design firm ADPI, faces a major challenge: How do you keep a building that must accommodate 45 million passengers a year–and eventually up to 72 million annually–from overwhelming passengers? For Hadid’s designers, the answer lies in its structure: the shape of the airport, its roof, and how it’s divided.

Render by Methanoia © Zaha Hadid Architects

Beijing is a vital hub for travel both within China and internationally, and its current airport is already at full capacity. According to current flight regulations, it just can’t accommodate any more planes than already travel to and from the airport daily. Yet Chinese air travel is booming. The country’s airplane market is expected to become the world’s largest by 2030. That’s where the new airport, located in the southern Beijing suburb of Daxing, comes in.

The radial-shaped airport, which looks kind of like what happens when you stretch a blob of silly putty between your hands, will likely be the largest single-terminal airport building in the world when it opens around 2018. In 2025, a satellite terminal will add 4.5 million square feet of space. It’s estimated that it will cost a total $12.8 billion.

“[The shape] is the most compact way of aggregating aircraft around the gates,” Cristiano Ceccato, an associate director in the firm and the project director for the airport, says in a phone interview. The terminal is designed to be “as big as you can make it before the distances get so far that it would take you so long to walk [through it] that you would miss your flight.” The large central space has room for security, shopping, and dining, while the more narrow corridors stretching out toward the runways maximize the number of planes you can fit around the terminal. Rather than walking along one long corridor to transfer between flights, as you’d do in some airports, the radial design allows you to walk a shorter distance to the center of the airport, then cut across the central atrium to your next destination.

The compact nature of the design reduces the need for air trains that facilitate travel between terminals in other large airports, a major money saver (and one of the major reasons why the designers squeezed everything into a single building as opposed to several smaller buildings). These automated people movers are expensive to install and maintain. It’s much cheaper to design an airport where people can walk anywhere they need to go.

However, long, wide-open distances can sometimes feel overwhelming for a pedestrian. According to Ceccato, people are only willing to walk around 600 yards from security to their gate (around the length of five football fields*). To break up the grand space at the center of the terminal building, the architects added large, curvaceous columns that swoop down from the roof. “It breaks the space and provides you with a rhythm on the inside,” he says. “You feel that it’s a continuous, fluid space, but it has moments of pause.” Shops and restaurants make people feel like they have places to take a break before continuing on to their gate.

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Furthermore, the airport check-in system is designed to speed up the process of getting in and out of the airport for frequent travelers. A separate floor of the airport is devoted to short-distance domestic flights. Essentially for commuters who need to fly once a week between Shanghai and Beijing, for example, it will be designed around the passenger who travels every day or every week, who already has a boarding pass printed and doesn’t need to check a bag.

All this serves to make the airport easier and quicker to navigate despite its mammoth size, facilitating the smooth journeys of millions of travelers who will pass through its halls each year.

*An earlier version of this post featured some bad football math. Six hundred yards is equivalent to five football fields, not half of one.

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.

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