This is a long article, but an interesting one nonetheless.
"READY FOR TAKEOFF"
Most airports resemble third-rate malls or first-rate bus stations. Toronto's new Pearson terminal is aiming higher.
Saturday Post (The National Post)
At 390,000 square metres and a projected cost of $3.4-billion, the new Pearson International Airport terminal is the biggest building going up in Canada now, and the construction schedule stretches to 2015.
The departures hall of the new terminal at Pearson International Airport is littered with cinderblocks, buckets, sawhorses and stacks of steel beams. Forklifts and cranes beep and whir through the enormous space, and construction workers in hard hats shuffle about, kicking up dust. They eye our little tour group warily: We are a frivolity in a project that's not for the faint of heart. Building is always big business, and this is easily the biggest building going up in Canada right now: 390,000 square metres, $3.4-billion. Two thousand construction workers are on the site, contributing to the costs of more than a million dollars a day in labour and materials as they hurry toward the terminal's October opening date. The departures hall alone could swallow a 747 whole. And, though the first sections of the terminal -- called T1-New -- will open this year, the construction schedule for the remainder of the building stretches out to 2015.
More than hospitals, houses or schools, the function of an airport is inseparable from its form. As such, airports are a kind of Everest of design -- or, to be more precise, its horizontal equivalent. Unlike office towers, where patterns repeat over many floors, airports stretch horizontally, requiring nearly every inch to be individually worked out.
But airports are also machines designed to get you and your bags on and off an airplane as quickly as possible. Which makes them singularly unpleasant places. Most resemble third-rate shopping malls or first-rate bus stations. They do nothing to celebrate flight -- especially commercial, discount, advance-purchase-required flight. It makes designing an airport a steep challenge: How can the building be exhilarating, when little else around it is?
Yet, a handful of new airports -- Chep Lak Kok, in Hong Kong, designed by Sir Norman Foster, Kansai, in Osaka, designed by Renzo Piano, and Schiphol, in Amsterdam -- have accomplished just this. Their high-tech aesthetic of abundant natural light, soaring spaces and panoramic runway views has become the de facto model for new airports everywhere. For world-class cities or wannabes, a shiny new airport is the must-have accessory for the WTO Ball -- and Toronto is not about to risk being underdressed.
The man charged with this task is Lou Turpen, CEO and executive director of the Greater Toronto Airport Authority. At 58, Turpen is considered an international leader in the rarefied field of airport management. The director of San Francisco International Airport for 14 years, he developed the first airport counter-terrorism plan in the United States.
When Turpen came to Toronto to start his job eight years ago, the first thing he did -- legend has it -- was to ask for a bird's-eye view of the airport. As Peter Gregg, the GTAA's communications manager, tells me wistfully, "He basically said, 'I'm going to pretend that none of this is here, and I have a clean slate to work with. What would I do?' And he started placing this terminal building, and he basically set about making that happen."
The story seems apocryphal -- surely, raising a billion-dollar building from the ground is more complicated than that. But the GTAA isn't ready to share details. Access is highly privileged, and each bit of buzz carefully calculated. For now, Turpen remains the man behind the curtain, the wizard of Mississauga.
Fortunately, the architects of the new terminal aren't under the same restrictions. One, David Jansen, who's been working on the new Pearson for more than a decade, tells me, "Turpen is a guy with a big vision. He wasn't going to play around with fixing up a terminal here and a terminal there. He was going to redo the airport. It was going to be a total revamp."
Jansen's an airport nut. As a partner in the workhorse Toronto architecture firm of Adamson Associates, he spent much of the mid-1990s designing a variety of buildings throughout Asia, leading him to spend time in some of the newest and largest airports in the world.
The new terminal sticks to the spirit of its international counterparts, even as it develops its own forms. It's shaped like a hand: An enormous crescent-shaped building contains check-in, immigration, baggage claim and the arrivals hall, while five finger-like piers house the gates. This October, the "processor" -- as the main building is called -- will open, along with Piers D and E (the pinky and ring finger respectively). And then, almost immediately, the old Terminal 1 will come down, making room for Pier F, the massive middle finger and the airport's pièce de résistance, intended mainly for international flights. After Pier F opens, in 2005, work will begin on Pier G; then, three years later, on Pier H.
The plan allows for the airport to grow as traffic warrants, with new "fingers" popping up periodically, as if the airport were counting passengers with its hands, each pier representing about five million more annually. In 2002, 26-million people came through the airport; in 2005, capacity is estimated at 34-million, and by 2010, 39-million.
Whether those passengers show up is another matter. Between 2001 and 2002, traffic at the airport dropped by 2-million. And the current state of the commercial-airline industry is not exactly stable. Air Canada's bankruptcy, war, viruses, terrorism and the worst winter in years have not helped tune the band heralding the new terminal.
But, for now, the building continues to rise. Over the past 18 months, its curved form has been a familiar view from the constantly shifting maze of airport roadways. As you drive up to the terminal, a continuous glass wall seems to shelter the departures roadway, giving it the feel of an urban street. The main doors are still plywood boxes, but the overall effect of the wall is clear: This building has a face, a recognizable façade. Its enormous expanse of glass may not be cozy, but it is awe-inspiring, in a Costco kind of way.
Inside, departing passengers will be faced with a rare thing: a vista. After passing through security at Pier E, they'll be standing at the top of an escalator, as a rotunda lit by a skylight opens up before them; across the way, arriving passengers are visible as they cross a mezzanine on their way to immigration; and Pier E itself stretches out into the distance.
The new terminal also solves a classic problem of airport design: Often, the departures hall is the main focus, at the expense of the arrivals area, which can feel like a rabbit warren. ("Everybody talks about airports as gateways, but actually they're exits," Jansen quips.) At Pearson, the departure and arrival spaces are intricately related, like a 3-D puzzle. The mezzanine looks down on the baggage and arrivals halls, allowing natural light to filter down. The roof is light, yet taut, like canvas; it "springs out of light," Moshe Safdie, one of the consulting architects, says. As Safdie describes it, "Southern sunlight is directed all the way to the northern arrivals driveway. That's Toronto: It's cold and it's dingy all winter, and when you wait for a car there, you want light. So the theme there was light working with structure." At this airport, departing passengers will be able to see arriving ones -- a small point, it would seem, but an important part of the building's ceremony. And the arrivals lounge will be the terminal's symbolic heart: a front door for Canada.
The broad strokes of the plan come from on high -- the work of ArupNAPA, the airport planning arm of one of the world's largest engineering firms -- but it falls to the architects to bring form to the building, and then to get it built. These days, the architects mainly hang out across from the Days Inn near the airport, at what they call the CSO -- the "consolidated site office." In a low, nondescript former warehouse, nearly 80 architects, engineers and mechanical consultants deal with the moving target that the construction of a building this size becomes. In a cubicle in the back, engineers stay busy fine-tuning the new terminal's baggage system, with its fifteen kilometres of conveyor belts, while in another cubicle young architects draw details. Their handiwork lies along one wall, where construction drawings (they're no longer really "blueprints") hang from racks like sheets drying on a line.
The architects come from three companies: Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM), one of the largest architecture firms in the world; the Toronto-based Adamson Associates; and Moshe Safdie and Associates. The firms are working together under the auspices of a joint venture called Airport Architects Canada.
Over a period of six weeks in the spring of 1997, designers from the three companies camped out in a conference room at SOM's headquarters, on 42nd Street in New York, to hash out the design for the terminal. SOM and Safdie are both known for keeping the pencil, as it were, firmly in hand. "There was a lot of energy, a lot of tension," says Jansen, who works for Adamson, in describing the design sessions. "You have a whole series of egos at work."
Most of the design for the new terminal evolved from those intense weeks in SOM's conference room, though work continues on Piers F and G. As Jansen recalls, "There were incredible debates going on over what schemes to do" -- how to shape the roof, how to get light deep into the terminal, what materials to use -- "but the tension forced us to push everything to a very clear concept."
Adamson and SOM split 90% of the labour, with the remaining 10% falling to Safdie. "Safdie was more for, How do you make the building a Canadian monument?" Jansen says. Safdie has a particular ability to design buildings that have a rich resonance with their places -- not an easy feat at an airport. And, having designed the National Gallery in Ottawa and the new public library in Vancouver, he has earned a reputation as a designer of important Canadian buildings -- even if, he confesses, the extent of his relationship with Toronto at the moment consists of flying in for meetings at the airport and flying back out. "To get the airport to mean place in terms of what's Toronto -- not Chicago, not New York -- that's complex," Safdie says. "We're trying to do that through the retailing program, through the graphics, through the art, through the cafés. That's where we're saying: 'This is Toronto.' " In time, this will likely be the key measure of the new Pearson's architecture: Does the design look as if it belongs in Toronto, rather than Boston, Washington or Singapore?
Of course, Turpen, more than anyone else, wants the new Pearson to stand out. Fortunately for the 26-million people who pass through Pearson each year, he appears to have good taste in architecture. As Gregg describes it, "I think architecture is very dear to Mr. Turpen's heart. He's an interesting balance: He's got that side of him and he's got the efficiency side of him, too." The terminal Adamson, Safdie and SOM have come up with doesn't so much incorporate both of those sides as reconcile them -- its architecture is efficient. While it is highly unlikely the building's opening in October will go smoothly (complexity loves chaos), it has an essential clarity.
The GTAA is eager to emphasize the new terminal's functionality -- "Efficiency and passenger experience are what drive Mr. Turpen," Gregg says -- though one wonders how much time can really be saved, given the unlikelihood of airlines changing their requirements for check-in times. Instead, the new terminal promises a somewhat more poetic experience: the bustle of arrival and departure, the satisfying hum of a train station, the distinctly urban sensation of comings and goings that the celebrated (and adopted Torontonian) urbanist Jane Jacobs calls "the ballet of the streets." Seeing arriving passengers, like seeing neighbours, can be both a comfort and a particularly urban joy.
It remains to be seen whether airports like Pearson will be the saviours of the airline industry. Nonetheless, they pass for civic monuments today. The expanse of the new Pearson building seems to reflect the expanse of the faraway places that it serves -- as if the world lay at the end of the jet way. In his book Airspaces, critic David Pascoe writes, "It is tempting to think of airports, in particular, as metaphors of modern existence." Flying, after all, retains something of the future about it, a sense that the world is smaller than it's ever been. But this is also the new terminal's greatest challenge: to feel distinct in that small world, to feel like Toronto.
© Copyright 2003 National Post
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