The Upside Down Airport (London Stansted Airport, UK)

It might be in an otherwise fairly unremarkable corner of Essex, some 35 miles away from London, but Stansted Airport’s terminal is amongst the most important airport buildings in the world. What was done here would have ramifications that would stretch all the way around the world, to the mega-airports being built today in money-no-object modern China.

Somewhere during the second half of the 20th Century, the glamour of flying had been lost from airport architecture, and Norman Foster, Stansted Airport’s architect, was determined to put it back.

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Early airport terminal buildings reflected the streamline stylings of the first part of the 20th Century, all Art Deco curves, zig-zags and fluting. They’re still there at places like Shoreham and Speke. Then they went all fabulously Modernist, like the Empire Air Terminal near London’s Victoria station, and the lost classic at Renfrew. But as airports developed in the post-war jet age, the buildings got bigger and bigger, and they also got more and more lumpen.

These heavy block-like terminals became confusing mazes with too few windows, tortuously complicated routes through the buildings, and a total failure to engage with the adventure of flying. Humans have dreamed for centuries of taking to the wing with the birds, and almost as soon as we were able to do it, we built Gatwick Airport to serve that dream. It’s my least favourite airport of them all; in its hulking presence South Terminal is a claustrophobic bunker of a building, sterile, airless and lit 24-hours a day by sickly fluorescent light. Then there’s the endless shuffle through the check-in and security processes until finally, you’re able to escape to the seating near the departure gate where you can finally find a window and a view outside again. I suppose it’s not really fair to pick out Gatwick; Heathrow’s pre-Terminal 5 buildings were no better, and neither are those at countless airports around the world, it’s just that I use Heathrow and Gatwick the most, and I’ve already had a go at Heathrow in an earlier article.

Stansted Airport had been there for a long time, but in the 1980s there was a concerted push to develop it as London’s third airport, Heathrow as ever operating at the edge of its capacity, and Gatwick prevented from expansion by a long-standing planning agreement. That would require Stansted’s terminal building to be built again from new, and Norman Foster was selected to undertake the work.

To look forwards, first he looked back to the days of early air travel when airport terminals were so small (sometimes just huts on the edge of an airfield) that it was possible to arrive at one and remain aware of the waiting aircraft on the other side of the building, the excitement of the journey to be undertaken almost within reach. With the buildings small, the route through them was obvious and instinctive to passengers, and the connection to the outside world was retained. It was this experience that Foster sought to replicate, through a much larger building, at Stansted.

The building would need curtain glazing to achieve the connection with the outside world that Foster wanted. The reason that the bloated and blocky airport terminals which had been the norm until then were bloated and blocky was because they needed lots of thick, unglazed, walls. The reason they needed thick, unglazed, walls was because the walls supported heavy roofs. The reason the roofs were heavy was because they contained all the air conditioning plant and other services necessary for a power- and utility-hungry passenger handling facility.

Foster’s stroke of brilliance at Stansted was to turn this conventional thinking literally on its head. The plant, services and utilities were placed under the floor of the terminal. That meant the walls of Stansted’s new terminal could be made of glazed panels. It’s an idea so simple, and so effective, that I’m amazed no one thought of it before, but it was considered completely radical when it was completed in 1991, and attracted enormous attention.

Now that the roof wasn’t supporting tonnes of heavy equipment, it could be lightweight and include skylights too. The outside world was back with a bang, and not only did it instantly improve the overall ambience of Stansted’s terminal compared to its predecessors, but it also slashed energy bills because it was (and remains) largely illuminated by daylight.

The arrivals area at Stansted, lit by natural light. Photo by Cecil Lee [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
The baggage reclaim area at Stansted, lit by natural light. Photo by Cecil Lee [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

The terminal is essentially one gigantic space of  85,700m², all on one level. It’s built around a grid pattern of repeated components. Steel ‘trees’ (vertical brackets if you want to be really mundane about it) branch out to support a shallow-domed square of roof. These squares of roofing elements and their supporting brackets are repeated across the terminal building. The ‘trees’ provide climate control, achieved by the machinery hidden underneath with vents in the trees’ trunks, and they also contain fire-fighting risers. Sometimes the trees sport information screens around their bases. Sometimes, help desks are arranged around them. They also contain uplighters which illuminate the roof, and the terminal, at night.

User: (WT-shared) Albion at wts wikivoyage [CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Inside the terminal building, its spacious layout helps it absorb large numbers of passengers. User: (WT-shared) Albion at wts wikivoyage [CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Passengers arriving by coach/ bus at Stansted were supposed to pull up at a covered porch, achieved simply by positioning the curtain glazing one row of roof squares into the building. However, it now seems to have been cordoned off in the interests of security, and bus/coach services depart from a bus station on the far side of the road.

Photo by John Lord [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Photo by John Lord [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

Passengers arriving by train do so in a railway station built underneath the terminal, which shares this undercroft space with the terminal’s utilities.

Entering the terminal building, it is possible to get a sense of it all at once, and understand where you’ll be going. Departures are on the left hand side, arrivals at the right. It is possible to see the air side of the airport, and its aircraft, as soon as you arrive.

It’s not, perhaps, quite as easy as Foster might originally have intended. I’m sure in his mind he envisaged a vast uncluttered circulation space, with only the roof-supporting trees marking out the space. But the realities of running an airport have intervened. You need a customs checking area, and security concerns meant that it was screened off by opaque glass, rather than the fritted glass screen Foster originally intended. So there went that sight-line. Then there was the need to fit in all the retail and refreshment units which are such a key part of the modern airport experience. That’s some more buildings to be included within the terminal building itself, and more sight-lines lost.

Some architects have been slightly critical of these compromises, and Foster’s apparent inability to foresee them. “Everyone thought Stansted was a beautiful airport…all on one level and you could see the planes taking off, but you could only do that because Foster designed it without any retail. [That] completely buggered up the concept. Therefore I would argue the concept itself was slightly flawed,” was how Mark Middleton of Grimshaw Architects put it (Attlee, 2015: p173).

I think that’s harsh. Stansted is still, by miles, a more civilised airport than any of its immediate predecessors. Its roof, with its skylights, is a thing of considerable sculptural attractiveness.

Photo by mira66 [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page.
Photo by mira66 [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

Stansted set the template for all those airy, bright terminal buildings that have come since. Madrid Barajas Terminal 4, Beijing Airport, they all follow in the footsteps of Essex’s finest.

How to find Stansted Airport

Click here for The Beauty of Transport’s map

Further Reading

Attlee, James, 2015, Station to Station. London: Guardian Books

Architectural Review article about the new Stansted Airport terminal, here

Foster + Partners’ project page for Stansted Airport, here

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