Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Designs for a plane way of life
E M Farrelly E. M. Farrelly is the Herald’s architecture and urban design critic.
WHAT is it about airports? Is there some standard requirement that the designers seek out and extinguish any last lurking vestige of the romance of travel? Do they put it in the brief? The airport may be a 20th century form, arguably the 20th century form, but railways and ports have been around a while: whatever happened to the flag-waving, steam-billowing, tear-jerking departures of old? Must the modern travel experience be so relentlessly grandeur-free?
Two new airport buildings – Brisbane International and the Qantas domestic terminal at Sydney – illustrate some ways of amending, or not, the standard prescription.
The Qantas terminal, designed by the Hassell Group, will, in five stages, extend, and then demolish, the former Australian Airlines building. This Oz Air building was designed (with a life of 10 years) by Clarke Gazzard, architects, 25 years ago. It was widely admired at the time for its simple and intelligible interior, as well as for its surprisingly literal “fuselage” car park bridge. Remarkably too, in view of its temporary nature, and unlike many permanent buildings of its era, it has aged well. In section, with its mezzanine and clerestory, the old AA building is absolutely of its time – nuts and berries with white-out. But the banana-shaped plan is unique and diagram-clear, dispersing passengers radially from a single arrival point, out to the waiting aircraft. The clarity and light have always made it a pleasure to use.
It is less clear whether the new building, designed around superlatives, will prove as enjoyable. Planned for completion by the end of 1997 (stage two of five should be finished by June this year), it was inspired, says Qantas, by “the best of Australia”, including the Australian “skyscape”. The design team also claims to have modelled the building on Helmut Jahn’s United Airlines terminal at O’Hare, Chicago, which is positively feline in its self-possession. But the influence, in the end, is mainly in the hard finishes – terrazzo not carpet, etc.
Formally, it owes more to United’s domestic terminal in Los Angeles, with its big, circular boarding satellite (June opening) at the end of a giant moving footpath. The idea of the circle is to maximise the nuzzling surface for the planes – sensible, as far as it goes. Being round, the satellite is already the terminal’s defining feature, and by far its most memorable one.
Trouble is, circular spaces are not comfortable at the best of times, bedevilled always by the fish-bowl feel and the persistent problem of what should happen at the centre. The centre of this one sports a vast skydome and what looks like a skating rink but which is actually just more polished terrazzo. And stringing it on to the end of an endless umbilicus like this, merely so that the world’s biggest Qantas Club can stretch itself out along the view, removes whatever clarity or tension the plan may have possessed. Links with Jahn’s Chicago elegance become tenuous indeed.
The other spaces, their light quality and finishes, are unremarkable in the extreme – so that the whole, however expensively clad, feels more like Black Stump airport than big, sassy Sydney. One can only hope the big new departure hall (stage five, already under construction), will abandon, at least, the cool, corporate grey-on-greys for some of the class and vividness of Brisbane’s effort.
The new international terminal in Brisbane, designed by Bligh Voller, architects, knocks Australia’s other airports into a cocked hat. Here the spectre of privatisation has worked as it ought to, but seldom does – orienting the entire production towards customer satisfaction.
The Federal Airports Corporation, as the client, wanted to see a genuinely consultation-led design process: a first for Australian airports, which typically limit themselves to moulding utilitarian volume around given capacity.
Brisbane’s unusually high proportion of FITs (Free Independent Travellers) may have influenced its selection as guinea pig in this regard. FITs – compared with Melbourne’s high count of VFRs (Visiting Friends and Relatives), for instance – generally come equipped with plenty of marks, yen or dollars, and comparatively few weeping rellies to distract from the business of spending.
Shopping was always going to figure in the design. Add to this an essential piece of common wisdom: people spend most easily, in any language, when they are happy, relaxed and away from home. So the building was designed to feel vibrant, comfortable and distinctively Q: to capture the “Queensland light” and the liveliness, intimacy and barefoot sophistication of Hastings Street, Noosa. This it does, with exuberant success.
The building itself is very much on London’s Stansted model, by Sir Norman Foster; a classy pavilion with screened sky-lighting and a forest of white steel “tree” columns. Foster’s buildings, though, including Stansted, are famously puritanical. Cooler than cool on the emotional barometer. By contrast, Brisbane’s terminal is alive – not only with Queensland light and air-conditioning that convincingly simulates a distant tropical breeze, but with an ingenious spatial arrangement that allows farewellers and spectators to look directly down into the departure lounge. No glass, even. Not to mention the fit-out, which includes groves of full-size palms, rampant artworks by Jennifer Turpin, Stephen Killick and Peter Cole, shops that are interesting – well, up to a point – and comfortable furniture.
Brisbane can claim a couple more Australian firsts, too. First fully automatic, bar-coded baggagehandling system (Sydney’s Qantas terminal will have the second in Australia, and only the 12th in the world). And first to allow the arriving passenger to see straight through, from kerbside to the waiting plane. This too arose from the consultation process – people like to see where they’re going.
Such transparency is an achievement in itself. But by far the most impressive achievement of the Brisbane terminal is to have realised an airport – an airport – in which it is a pleasure to be. Now that’s a first.
Two illus: Sydney Qantas terminal …
(above) planned for completion by the end of 1997 and (below) Brisbane’s international terminal.