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“It’s a shed!”

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The other week I was in Madrid’s Barajas Airport Terminal 4. Designed by the architects now known as Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, it won The Stirling Prize, the UK’s ‘highest’ architectural award in 2006 so it must be good, right? After all, it’s not often one gets to see a real, award-winning bit of architecture. I arrived at Terminal 4S which turned out to be a satellite, a twin duplicating all functions other than immigration and baggage handling.

Splitting an airport terminal into two is a major thing to do. My guess is that wasn’t a decision made by the architects for, if it had been, we’d have been told what a great decision it was. As a user, I found it had two disadvantages. First, upon arrival, I was a bit anxious having to board a shuttle train without knowing where my luggage had gone. And upon departure, the satellite’s shops and restaurants were noticeably half hearted and second-best as the premium retailers no doubt chose the main bit rather than duplicate their stores. Duty free shopping franchises are supposed to be major earners for airport operators but I suspect increased capacity and landing fees are better ones. As I said, this isn’t a decision for architects to make but, as a user, this airport is dead. If I’m going to be waiting around for three hours I’d prefer to do it in an airport with more “buzz”.

Perhaps this is what Hugh Miller on e-architect meant when he wrote:  

The constraints posed by the practicalities of a working airport have prevented Rogers from fully flexing his space-planning muscles. But if you can not go through the brief – as it were – I guess you have to go over it. Rogers has done exactly this with an exquisite roof structure which dances over the concourse like the undulating hills which surround Madrid. As ever with Rogers, the detailing is measured to perfection, and the timber chosen to cloth the furrows of this roof evoke the baked earth of central Spain like little else could.

Attempts have been made to make the terminal a more user friendly environment. A colour-coding system has been employed where by tickets match-up to different sections of the departure lounge. These novelties appear lukewarm, however, when compared to the extravagance (and, indeed, subtlety) of the roof. Yet another example of how Rogers uses the ‘big gesture’ as a design tool, something he has rightly been famous for ever since Pompidou.

He’s pretty much got it right although, architectural philistine that I am, I didn’t see much echo of the undulating hills surrounding Madrid nor, having just driven through it, the baked earth of central Spain. This might just be me. < DIGRESSION 1. Notice how it’s never “the tangle of highways and traffic signs” that surrounds Madrid but natural landscapey things like hills and farmland that get alluded to? I’d always wondered why this was the case and one of the responses to this year’s EDGE question explains metaphors as the cognitive mapping of abstract concepts onto real ones. (See here for the actual response. For an overview, see here.) Basically, Terminal 4 is an artificial thing and “artificial” is an abstract concept. Helped along by the power of suggestion, our minds map abstract concepts onto tangible “nice” things like hills or farmland and that, forever, is how we think of it. No wonder architects and friendly journalists like stuff like that – it makes buildings “belong”. \DIGRESSION 1.> 

Not that any of this matters. But it did help explain the contrived curviness of the terminal’s dominant design feature. The other dominant design feature is repetition. These days, most airport terminals are modular so they can be extended in any direction whenever. Barajas is designed around one section, repeated along its length and across its width.

There’s nothing wrong with this – it’s pragrmatic. Every corner doesn’t have to be an architectural event but special attention is needed when the modular fun stops and you really need to have a wall between the inside and the outside. The ends of Barajas are filled in with glass hung off an independent support structure. Somebody enjoyed designing these. 

The long sides are filled in as and when with vertical glazing that intersects rather clumsily with the bamboo-clad soffit.

Outside, when modules aren’t repeated, the module ends rather abruptly along the line of the lower skylights.

However, when the roof repeats, it is mirrored around those skylights now baffled to indirectly light the interior including areas such as baggage reclaim. Glad to finally see my luggage again, I don’t remember appreciating the natural light.

Moving on, the skylights at the higher parts of the roof occur over the check-in area (to the left in the photograph immediately above) where they are welcome, and also above the retail area (to the right) where they are redundant. But let’s take a look at these skylights because a lot of thought, possibly misplaced, has gone into them.

The circular skylights are covered by white fabric diffusers. At night and also during the day these white fabric diffusers reflect artificial light shone upwards at them. This must have been insufficient since paired reflectors bounce that light back down where it’s needed. Something’s a bit confused here since, during the day, the reflectors compensate for light they are blocking anyway.

< DIGRESSION 2: When RSHP decide that they are going to do something, they do tend to go ahead and do it without stopping to ask if it really is a good idea. Back in the day when it was called the Richard Rogers Partnership, most of their bad decisions had to do with light. RR has spent most of his career trying to build a glass roof over London. Hagiographers say that this is because RR wants to create the outdoor cafe culture of his birthplace, Florence – to which the only sensible reply is “And so what?” However, this readiness to put glass roofs over things got RSHP into trouble at Heathrow (“It’s a shed!”) Terminal 5.

The thing is, passengers and the planes they are going to leave on, both arrive at ground level. This can’t really be changed.

going up?!

Passengers and their luggage go up to the seventh floor to check in and enjoy the light before going almost all the way back down to ground level where their departing plane inconveniently is. 

passengers enjoying the light

When the terminal opened, British Airways discovered that luggage can’t be pushed around as easily as the passengers. The seven storey, circular conveyor belt for the luggage didn’t work. This, to my mind, is not a “teething problem” but a fundamental flaw of design logic.  Heathrow Terminal 5 also has a satellite but it’s one of those traditional “gate only” jobs. \DIGRESSION 2 >

Anyway, back to sunny Spain and confused logic. Bottom line is, the bright bits you see in the photo below look natural, but aren’t. The skylights are artificially lit to show that that’s where the natural light comes in.

All the same, bouncing light off the ceiling does emphasise its curviness and this is what it’s all been about all along. In truth, apart from the dismal shopping, it’s not bad as far as airport experiences go. The general absence of advertising helps. Which reminds me….

< DIGRESSION 3: On my incoming flight, I’d watched “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” – that possibly pseudo-documentary about advertising and the movie industry. From that I learned that the city of Sao Paulo banned outdoor advertising. Here’s a view of Sao Paulo.

Some council person explained something along the lines of “You see, our city is not particularly beautiful, but at least we can see it again. Before, we weren’t looking at the city, we were reading it. They might have a point. \DIGRESSION 3. >

In airports, there’s enough stuff to read anyway and it’s obvious someone enjoyed designing the signage support system. This kit of parts is cleverly configured to support signage,

check-in counter identifiers,

and  flight status monitors, zone identifiers and clocks,

and, with a little bit of added contrivance, security cameras and numerous little stands for speakers in areas not covered by the general public address system. It all starts to get a bit too clever and intrusive.

This “Why hide it when you can make a feature of it?” attitude has always been characteristic of Hi-Tech”. It’s a good thing to apply honesty and integrity to every component of a building, and to not make things appear other than what they are and, on the whole, it works. There’s always going to be the danger that “honesty” gets contrived for decorative effect such as with the skylight chandeliers, for example. And the signage.

Where it doesn’t work is when one consistent philosophy (if you will) or decorative effect (if you won’t) is juxtaposed against the self-contained bubble universes that are the retail experience. Here’s what happens. It’s like buildings-within-buildings.

Finally, the colours can’t not be mentioned. Here’s the money shot.

The sections of the airport are given different colours to help you in the right direction –  or so we are led to believe. Frankly I didn’t find it made any difference to me finding my gate any quicker or easier. It didn’t matter whether my gate was red or blue – it was gate 352 that I had to be at.  Besides, I had a couple of hours to work out where it was anyway – as would most people, I imagine.

I suspect this is just a bit of decorative whimsy, dressed up with an almost-believable explanation. Where’s the zones for turquoise and orange? Huh? Huh? I do wish architects, particularly the tecchie ones, could just come out and say “we did it because we thought it looked pretty” or “we did it so people would like it more” without feeling the need to justify their attention seeking with dodgy logic.