The gateway to the world and its genius loci

Out on the apron of Casablanca airport, Humphrey Bogart says goodbye to Ingrid Bergman in one of the most famous farewell scenes in film history. A scene that is as good as unthinkable today, as airports have morphed into complex buildings with architecture determined increasingly by security systems and organizing the passenger flow. Christoph Mäckler Architekten has addressed the related issues for over 20 years now. At present, the company is planning and building Terminal 3 at Frankfurt Airport, which will be commissioned by 2022. Katharina Sommer spoke with project manager Michael Baumgarten about the planning processes and the influence security systems have on the architecture.

Katharina Sommer: An airport organizes the flow of persons and cargo on the scale of a small city. Is an airport a matter of architecture or of infrastructure?

Michael Baumgarten: Just as any task in a city has a genius loci, so the airport is a special place. And the architecture responds to this and to the specific task. A check-in hall, for example, must function like a gateway to the world. So it’s important that the airport has a clear identity and the architecture gives it a USP. At the same time, the infrastructure, in particular when it comes to how to move people through the building, is key and really impacts on the architecture.

What wayside systems have to be planned for the various user groups?

Michael Baumgarten: Primarily there are visitors, i.e., passengers, and staff members. The latter need to be sub-divided between those airport staff handling the baggage system and the controls at the check-in desks, and those who work for government agencies, such as customs or the Federal Police, as their respective routes differ. The main criterion is to guide passengers – with clear systems. This applies both to signage and to spatial orientation within the building. Swift access and ensuring that at nodes you only have to choose between two directions – these are key categories when planning airports. The idea must be to make certain passengers and staff alike have to pass as few control checks as possible.

So how do you achieve this?

Michael Baumgarten: The passengers are subdivided into three flows: Arriving and departing guests within the Schengen Area are in one zone, whereas for Non-Schengen-Area passengers there are separate zones for arrivals and departures.

Today, airports primarily finance themselves by renting out store space. This makes routes longer and the organization more complex. What economic concepts influence planning the flow of people through an airport?

Michael Baumgarten: Most importantly, you have to guarantee clear and short routes for passengers. For example, in Terminal 3 there will be a market square with large store areas, not dissimilar to a trade-fair hall, where design guidelines will ensure maximum flexibility for usage. The problem tends to be the sheer scale of an airport. For the aircraft dock you tend to have a building that can be as much as 600 meters long. Which spells a long route for passengers, and here the stores serve to break up the monotony.

A real challenge for architects and logisticians: The airport Frankfurt/Manin gets a new Terminal 3, Christoph Mäckler Architekten want to finish the building until 2022. Photo © Fototeam Stefan Rebscher

Berlin’s Tegel Airport was built over 40 years ago and is renowned for the clear and short access routes. Why are airports planned so very differently today?

Michael Baumgarten: The reason for the short access routes is not that Tegel Airport is about 40 years old. It’s important to distinguish here between thoroughbred “domestic airports” and vacation airports with short links and hubs – such as Frankfurt, London, Paris or Amsterdam. Each hub has several thousand connections to destinations all over the world and this spawns all manner of different routes taken by passengers, which makes everything very complex.

How exactly have security requirements on airport complexes changed in recent decades?

Michael Baumgarten: Say 30, 40 years ago Frankfurt Airport had a single level. Arriving and departing guests were located in the same zone and were able to move around freely in the building. Anyone wanting to accompany their relatives to the airport was able to walk almost to the plane as it were, as if they were in a railroad station. Now that has changed fundamentally, first because of the increased security controls and secondly due to the necessary subdivision of visitor flows.

How do such criteria influence the airport architecture?

Michael Baumgarten: Flows are becoming more differentiated and planning more complex. All the flows have to run parallel, which is why you need several levels in the terminal building. Not only the passengers, but also goods destined for the Schengen Area or the Non-Schengen Area have to move along separate routes. This is usually pretty difficult to achieve when converting existing airports for reasons of space.

What security systems play a role in planning and how are they networked?

Michael Baumgarten: We distinguish between airplane security and facility safety (fire protection). Certain areas may only be accessed by carefully defined groups of persons, and this is especially true of the apron, a special security zone. In the event of fire, all passengers and staff must be able to exit the facility speedily and safely. The fire protection regulations are therefore partly in conflict with aviation security and this has to be coordinated at the planning and process stage.

The planned Terminal 3 with check in hall: During the first stage of construction, the central building with round about 90.000 square meters and two departure gates will be realized. Visualization © Fraport AG

What is the planning process, i.e. the interaction between the designing architects and the other specialist planners on an airport building project?

Michael Baumgarten: As a rule the developers have their own specialist departments for security, personnel flows, store areas, etc. We work together with them from a very early stage onwards to define the requirements that are then compiled as a list for the beginning of planning and are later elaborated on in detail. Moreover, in the course of the planning we have to coordinate the work of countless specialist planners such as the civil engineers, facility technology experts and fire protection authorities. Then there are the experts on radars, visitor flows, simulations, escape route, smoke extraction, etc. and we collaborate with them all in a project house on site.

How does your architecture office approach the issue of security from the design viewpoint?

Michael Baumgarten: The question is of course whether and how flows of people can be separated and whether corridors are naturally lit, that is wether they interact with outdoors or not. The architecture and in particular the geometries must create clear routes and a good sense of orientation. Signage also entails a certain degree of complexity, as there are different signs for stores, toilets, directions to gates, and escape routes. So you on the one hand need a clear concept with easily legible pictograms and, on the other, need to integrate this into the corporate identity and the architecture.

Could airport security systems in the future be completely automated?

Michael Baumgarten: Many door and passage control systems are automatic. Body checks, customs and security controls have to be carried out by persons. Alongside computer controls you therefore always also have to factor in human decisions. This is especially true in the event of unforeseen occurrences, and I can’t imagine that changing so quickly.

How will flying and airports change in the near future?

Michael Baumgarten: In the course of the last decade we have seen much automation in the sense that passengers now check in at home using their smartphones. And baggage drops are now also in part automatic. Current events make it imperative for there to still be controls at airports, in fact they call for increased controls. The effort is on speeding up the controls by relying on automation, such as full-body scans at the security checks or “easy pass” automatic passport checks. What is exciting is that airplane types have hardly changed in recent decades. The basic principles of how airplanes get turned around, fueled, loaded and entered are givens at all airports the world over. Radical changes to airplane or airport construction would unbalance the entire carefully calibrated system and necessitate an inconceivable degree of conversion work globally. Airport construction will therefore advance on the basis of the prevailing basic principles – in the form of ongoing optimization.

The planned right of way of Terminal 3: During the second stage of construction, there will be two more departure gates and 26 further belay stations. Visualization © Fraport AG
Security first: Automatic entry controls, building control, automatic incident detection, displaying and controlling of energy consumption, also central control of heating and air conditioning are simplifying highly complex infrastructural working processes. Visualization © Fraport AG

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