Beijing Airport: a symbiosis of engineering and architecture

China will soon replace the US as the world’s largest aviation market. According to the International Air Transport Association, this shift will occur within five years.

A booming economy, rapidly expanding population and a growing middle class have all contributed to pressure on the country’s existing air transport facilities. Opened by President Xi Jinping on 25 September 2019, Beijing Daxing International Airport will meet escalating demand for travel to and from the Chinese capital. This remarkable symbiosis of engineering and architecture is the biggest single-building airport terminal in the world.

Aerial view of Beijing Daxing International Airport

A world-leading airport design with an iconic form

Buro Happold worked in a consortium with Zaha Hadid Architects and airport planning consultancy ADPI to develop the concept and schematic design for this $11bn statement megastructure. The headline figures are dazzling: initially serving 45 million passengers per year, capacity will rise to 72 million by 2025 – that is, annually, 630,000 flights – on the way to hitting 100 million; the 700,000m2 terminal area is served by a ground transportation centre measuring 80,000m2; construction necessitated 1.6 million cubic metres of concrete along with 52,000 tonnes of steel; and there are parking bays for 268 aircraft. However, the big numbers are not the real story here. Rather, what truly impresses is the teamwork that allowed sustainable engineering design to be integrated into the architectural form. An uncommonly strong collaboration fostered a highly creative approach to the brief, providing the client with added value while shaping a landmark aviation facility for China.

“We explored a completely new combined model of lighting, heating, structure, wayfinding, and airplane traffic that defined the building form,” says Wolf Mangelsdorf, Buro Happold’s partner leading the project. “It was truly multidisciplinary. This is one of the most exciting projects I have worked on.”

It was truly multidisciplinary. This is one of the most exciting projects I have worked on.
Wolf Mangelsdorf, partner

Interior view of Beijing Daxing International Airport
Image: Hufton + Crow

Creative airport design based on decades of expertise

BuroHappold’s close association with Zaha Hadid Architects extends back over two decades, taking in such ambitious projects as Glasgow’s Riverside Museum of Transport, the Morpheus Hotel in Macau’s City of Dreams and the forthcoming Bee’ah Headquarters in Sharjah, UAE. This has proved to be a tremendously fruitful working relationship based on trust, talent and aspiration that produces something special for clients.

“I would put architects in two categories,” Wolf explains. “First there are those who go, ‘This is what I want. Just make it work.’ To them, I usually say, ‘Here’s someone else’s number.’ Then there’s a smaller number of architects who really want to work with creative engineers.”

In this instance, that creativity was informed by years of aviation experience. Having worked on many pertinent high-profile airport design projects – including Heathrow and Jordan’s Queen Alia International Airport – BuroHappold met the challenge with a full understanding of the sector’s complex demands and commercial realities. This knowledge proved invaluable in discerning clear and pragmatic design objectives for Beijing Daxing that chimed with the client vision. Environmental drivers, adaptability and ease of navigability – more broadly, enhancing the passenger journey by putting people first – were fundamental in honing the concept.

“To a large degree, engineering considerations drove the form development,” says Wolf.  “Not just the structure, but also for considerations of sustainability. This would have never happened if we hadn’t been working with one of the world’s best architects, because they were able to take our ideas and creatively incorporate them into the architecture.”

The stunning new Daxing International Airport, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects. Its design improves passenger experience with its reduced distances to the gates. Image: Hufton + Crow

A sustainably designed airport delivered without compromise

Built with the flexibility to support future growth, the finished airport is a striking translation of the team’s ideas. Integrated passive design elements – such as sun shading, high-performance glazing and a strategy that allows natural light to reach the building’s lowest levels – reduce overall energy consumption and CO2 emissions by approximately 50%. Active systems include a terminal roof that incorporates fresh air intakes and return air ducts; tempered air is supplied at low level to cool passengers rather than space, minimising energy use and increasing comfort.

The client wanted this to be a welcoming and inspiring place for people, characterised by open and expansive interiors. This element of the brief, too, is delivered without compromise. Composed of five piers radiating from a central hub, the terminal cannot fail to wow even the most jetlagged of passengers with its dramatic undulating space frame roof and feature columns. Optimised view lines expedite travel time while intelligent use of linear skylights provides intuitive guidance to and from the 79 gates, the farthest of which is 600m from security checkpoints.

A complex and massive undertaking constructed in just five years, Beijing Daxing Airport is not only a new landmark for China but also an object lesson in selfless collaborative working. “Yes, it’s a brilliant piece of architectural and functional design,” Wolf notes. “But the fact that everybody came together and shaped this building, that’s what’s so good about it.”

Yes, it’s a brilliant piece of architectural and functional design. But the fact that everybody came together and shaped this building, that’s what’s so good about it.
Wolf Mangelsdorf, partner

Beijing Daxing International Airport exterior
Image: Hufton + Crow

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