Foster & Partners’ Hong Kong airport: Cathedral of flight (1999)

The story behind Hong Kong’s new airport, Chek Lap Kok, is obviously one long string of superlatives. Not all of them are positive, however, and the "eighth wonder of the world" is attracting a great deal of commentary.

R. J. Preece , P. Wong
artdesigncafé - design | 8 September 2011
This article was previously published in FRAME, 6, pp. 40-5.

Foster & Partners’ Hong Kong airport

“Airport Chaos: A Disgrace” headlined the local Apple Daily. On its opening day (July 6, 1998) the Hong Kong International Airport— otherwise known as Chek Lap Kok— turned into an international symbol of the former British Colony’s problems. First the bird flu sickened some of those brave enough to eat chicken, then the economic flu cast a shadow on Asia’s bright future, and finally the airport flu threatened to scare the rest of the world away form Hong Kong entirely. Although its passenger terminal was promoted as the world’s “eighth wonder”, the airport quickly became a universal blunder, with a continuing docu-drama unfolding daily in the international press.

Faulty movable gangways trapped some travellers in their planes for hours, and baggage-handling delays kept others waiting even longer. The situation was bad enough to make one fondly recall the unnerving take-offs and landings, not to mention the claustrophobically cramped conditions, at the former Kai Tak airport. Businesses suffered well over USD$250 million in losses owing to the extreme chaos in cargo areas at nearby Super Terminal I. Those who dared to fly out could expect delays of up to four hours, and flight-information displays failed to function. Telephone problems, toilet problems— the list seemed endless.

Yet within weeks the chaos at the airport from hell had subsided, and Chek Lap Kok has come into its own: a high-tech cathedral of flight for the former British crown colony. Designed by Foster and Partners as part of the Mott Consortium, working with the Hong Kong Airport Authority, the new terminal building is the largest enclosed public space under one roof. According to Norman Foster, "Hong Kong is a unique city and deserves a very special symbol. The new airport fulfils this role— it is, in effect, a gateway to the city— a high profile event of international significance."

Chek Lap Kok suits Hong Kong wonderfully. It fits right in with the city’s inclination to boast about size, speed and price tag. The airport is one of ten related, large-scale infrastructure projects, including 34 kilometres of expressways and tunnels, and the world’s longest road-rail suspension bridge, all of which support the airport’s location off the coast of Lantau Island, 25 kilometres from Hong Kong’s central business district. The new “Chek Lap Kok” island is actually made from two former islands in the vicinity of Lantau, one being the original “Chek Lap Kok”. Smashed and flattened, a 6-metre-high, 24-square-kilometre pancake provides the base for the new airport. While the projects involved took only five years to complete, Foster’s terminal building was finished in a mere three.

Simple design

Size does matter. At 1.27 kilometres long and 300 metres at its widest point, the terminal’s interior space is almost beyond imagination. Upon completion of the northwest concourse, 550,000 square metres are scheduled as early as late 1998. The terminal has the capacity to handle 35 million passengers during its first year, and its projected capacity is 80 million by 2040, a figure estimated to be the current level of traffic experienced annually at New York’s JFK and London’s Heathrow combined. Why did Hong Kong need a passenger terminal this large? The city’s Airport Authority aspires to guarantee its position as the hub of Southeast Asia and as the main entry point into Southern China. With half the world’s population located within five hour’s flying time from Hong Kong, the airport is considered to be an investment— one that justifies the nine-levelled terminal’s cost of US$1.5 billion.

Driving up to the monumental floor-to-ceiling glass façade at the terminal’s seventh level, the visitor sees an entrance that saturates ceremony with its 20-metre-high, curve-covered entry hall, which embodies a spaciousness new to Hong Kong urbanism. Through glass doors, travellers glide down granite tiles and across atrium bridges that magnify the entrance and lead to 288 check-in counters. The design shows a great concern for light. In addition to the glass walls, repetitive triangular-shaped skylights line the tops of barrel vaults, their reflector panels blocking tropical sunlight and reflecting it back onto the ceiling. Seen from above, the roof looks like an abstract bird or aeroplane, with perhaps a hint of sea creatures, and those walking through the terminal are sheltered by a ceiling that provides a directional emphasis from east to west, indicating the location of most of the departure gates. Cool greys, blues and whites dominate the interior and create a calmness amid the monumentality.

Meanwhile, for arriving passengers on the fifth level, the design is simple. Passengers disembark from their planes and travel along one level. Passing through the standard checkpoints and services, travellers enter the Meeters and Greeters Hall, which acts as their introduction to Hong Kong. Despite the light from glass walls, atriums exposed to the departure level, and artificial lighting underneath the atrium bridges, the area is surprisingly gloomy. In an ingenious effort to lighten the mood, some of the service counters have installed neon signs, which illuminate the area and suggest the dynamism of Hong Kong’s famed Nathan Road.

Colour confusion

Leaving the check-in counter, departing passengers directed to the central concourse experience an open-access shop-and-restaurant area, which strengthens the role of the building as a local tourist attraction. This area was also a complicating factor in the chaos that marked the brand-new airport, as it attracted hordes of visitors. Formally known as the SkyMart, the 30,000 square feet of shopping space distributed throughout the building provides consumer ecstasy for some. Cynics, however, see it as a symbol of Greater Hong Kong, mammoth shopping mall of the Orient.

Level 8’s open-access restaurants offer the best views. Visitors can look out on layers of space, watch the central vault extending into visual infinity, peer down at arrivals entering Level 5, and catch a glimpse of eating outlets beyond the security checkpoint. Even the aircraft beyond the glass walls of the terminal are in clear view. However, the end result is colour confusion. When compared with the neutral shades offered by Foster’s interior palette, the shops and restaurants–bright-coloured and varied–present a radically contrasting aesthetic. While this may be problematic for the desire of visual continuity, it does recall the colour and variety of Hong Kong streets. In fact, it is one of the few signs that this airport is indeed in Hong Kong, a realisation that leads to the following considerations: with the former colony’s sensitivity to things colonial, why does this airport “extend and develop an innovative concept at Stansted” (Foster’s design for London’s third airport, completed in 1991)? And why for post-colonial Hong Kong?

Through the security checkpoint and into the East Hall, past a restaurant and passenger lounges, we descend to Level 6, which means experiencing the SkyMart shopping mall, part 2. Escaping the shops on our way to the departure gate means descending to Level 1 and entering the heart of the machine, the Automated People Mover (APM). Fully automated, the train joins the East Hall with the West at the Y-intersection. Travelling each way along the full length of the 750-metre central concourse for a 90-second trip, the APM’s trains pick up arrivals on its return to the East Hall. While the APM has worked well overall, in the chaotic early weeks it was reported to have trapped a passenger for 45 minutes, making him miss his flight. Alternatively, there are moving walkways throughout the concourses on a continuous journey bathed in neutral colours beneath the dominance of the white roof. While it may unify the design, it leads to interior monotony.

Bittersweet result

Is it possible to lose your way in this design? While early reports made claims of lost passengers shortly after the opening, a recent walk-around presented no problems. As the orientation of the roof psychologically directs passengers into the central course, signage is consistently limited, but purposeful. West Hall-bound travellers can take the moving walkways the entire distance, through strategic signage points to the APM, with some insistence. Though signs are big, easy to see and smart-looking, the standard white san-serif type set in deep blue lacks individuality. For some, the scale of the interior space of the central concourse is slightly overwhelming, despite its ceiling, which curves downward to a height of 15 metres. For others, the combination of vertical, horizontal and colour choice is just right.

At the departure gates, glass-covered walls provide views of natural Hong Kong’s mountainsides and waterscapes. Set in a celebration of form, the ceiling with its triangular skylights visually dominates. How is the ceiling freed up? The air-conditioning system is integrated into the check-in islands or into service units, while electrical wiring is under the floor. Here “affordable” space offers a choice of ergonomically designed seats in cool blue and an occasional hot red. For constantly on-the-go Hong Kongers, sitting in this space is calming— as intended— and offers a time for reflection.

The result is bittersweet. As we examine this landmark design, the opening chaos is already part of history. Yet the airport sparks continuing concerns of an environmental nature, the most pressing of which centres on the rare Chinese white dolphin. According to a spokesperson at Hong Kong’s Friends of the Earth, the shallow waters around the original Chek Lap Kok island and its immediate environs have long been one of the Chinese white dolphin’s few homes, and their numbers were reported to have dropped by one-third from 1996. Ironically, the "tail" of the terminal’s west end is a reference to sea creatures. A glance at the ceiling reveals sweeping interior curves that call to mind the graceful leaps of dolphins, an admittedly abstract but morbid reminder of the price of Hong Kong’s contribution to the “wonders of the world”.