Shenzhen Airport_© Leonardo Finotti

“A manta ray emerging from the depths of the sea, transformed into a bird and ascending into the sky ”, is the description of Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas of their design for the new Terminal 3. This expansion project enables the airport of the South Chinese city of Shenzhen to attend 45 mio. passengers per annum and therefore is the n° 4 of the largest airports in China behind Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. At the beginning of October 2013 the start of the first construction stage including 63 contact gates plus 15 remote was marked: the building’s length is about 1.5 kilometers and its gross floor area is about 500.000 sqm with a capacity of 24 mio. passengers per annum – in less than five years after the first phase of the multistage architectural competition.

Realizing the building of the Terminal 3, three planning cultures with three different mentalities collided: the artistic talent of Italian architects Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas, the technical expertise of the German engineers of Knippers&Helbig from Stuttgart, who have been cooperating with Studio Fuksas from the beginning of the competition, and the Chinese Design Institute BIAD, who realized the Terminal 3 in Beijing in cooperation with Foster and Partners in 2008.

With the exception of the airport specialists Foster and Partners, gmp and Kisho Kurokawa other architectural studios, who have never built an airport, yet were also invited to participate in the competition in 2007: FOA, Reiser Umemoto and Studio Fuksas. The principle organizational structure and the building footprint, regarding the placement of the terminal, the cross-like arrangement and the functional distribution of functions across multiple levels, had already been determined by the client and a Dutch. The planning teams’ task was to transform this structure into a spatial event and into a distinctive landmark. In a subliminal way, the client expected an emotional building, able to outshine the rational appearance of Hong Kong International Airport, 25 miles away. Within the Pearl River Delta, the world’s most productive urban agglomeration, the former British Crown colony with its rich traditions is the rival of Shenzhen, founded only in 1979 and by now the fourth largest metropolis in China.

An integral part of the architects’ work is a coherent concept for the building structure and facade, climate control and daylight optimization technology, as well as interior design with all inbuilt elements and shops etc. developed ready for construction. After numerous rounds of decision four applicants remained. Five months later Studio Fuksas with engineers Knippers Helbig prevailed against Reiser Umemoto. Their design fills the technical construction task with life, distinguishes the rigid geometry of the longitudinal concourses by notches and large scaled roof lights to a scenographic design of the passengers’ flows – from underground train until aircraft. It is meant to rise associations to forests and caves. At the upstream oval, 245m long and 160m wide transportation center the passengers emerge from the regional- and long- distance connections of bus and train in the underground and arrive by crossing a bridge on the first level at the basement level of the two-story high area of the Terminal hall. Behind the enclosure there are the assembly lines of the spacious two-story luggage office. But the main spirit of the building is displayed on the third level, where the four- lane priority ramp is connected directly to the departure lounge and where the cone- shaped, upward evaporating columns stretch the space up to 25m height. This part of the building is 306m long and 642m wide and its volume including the clam- shell coating continues to reduce its shape in ground floor plan as well as in sectional cut like the neck of a bottle to the main development axis -the longitudinal concourses.

On the first level of this three-story section, the arrival level of international flights, you can only experience the clam- shell coating at the longitudinal sides. But on the first level the 43m straining steel- structure with a clearance of 13m and simultaneous views through the clam- shell to the landing field and the sky rises to full effect: to subdivide the 760m long enfilade, which appears infinite, and to transform it to a diversified spatial experience with defined areas, the steel- structure arches into the space at five points and reduces the inner shell of the volume while the glazing of the outer shell creates large scaled roof lights at these areas to light them naturally. At mid- length the crossing of longitudinal concourses and crosswise concourses forms another point of orientation: the architects take these crossings of arrival and departure of national flights as urban ‘Piazza’. Information point and bar are meant to create an urban flair. Intersections of escalators create views to all three levels. Opposite to the continuous traversing sectional cut of the longitudinal concourse, like the body of an aircraft, the sectional cuts of the longitudinal concourses, which are collateral docking like the wings of an aircraft, narrow down at the crossing points.

Two design elements dominate the draft: the structure of the building and the sculptural ‘trunks’ of the ventilation outlet follow organic shapes, while the exterior and interior shell of the steel- structure is cut into geometrical honeycombs. The interior furniture designed by Doriana and Massimiliano Fuksas is following this principle of fractal geometry, as well. Internet-point, check- in counter, security check, passport check and the counters at the gates are designed like honeycombs in different scales and their polished stainless steel cover multiplies the prismatic play of light like a kaleidoscope.

(Nowadays the parametric design has even entered universities. In 2007 the development of parametrical programs like Grasshopper was at its beginning. The Terminal 3 of Bao’an airport is worldwide the first building of this scale which is designed by applying this technology. The geometrical information is amongst others used and shared within the construction partners to simulate daylight effects, to calculate the solar efficiency and for construction and dimension the base points of the steel structure.)