3 May 2011

Cathedral

There is no doubt: Architecture is a form of communication. The way a building is designed speaks of its purpose, importance, and quality. It is a token for the power, ambition and not least the imiagination of the people behind it. Since time immemoral, mankind has sought to express itself via the structures it builds. Religious edifices, from ancient Egypt's pyramids to Cambodia's temples and Renaissance Italy's impressive cathedrals, are particularly stunning examples of mankind's determination and efforts.

Today, the grandest designs are arguably no longer reserved for deities. Instead, the 21st century's firm belief in progress and technology is celebrated in magnificient cathedrals of transportation - modern "greenfield" airports. Unlike the overcrowded nations of Europe and tax-deprived governments of North America, the booming economies of Asia have built a good number of these new and megalomaniac air travel hubs over the last two decades. As it happens, my recent junket around the world included a good number of them.

From Renzo Piano's pale-rose and pastel Osaka Kansai, via Sir Norman Foster's dome-roofed Hong Kong Chep Lap Kok and Beijing Terminal 3, to the retro-space-station looks of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport, these gigantic, glass-and-steel, light-swept terminals are a testament to the aspirations of their host cities, and mankind's unwavering faith in air transport as an engine for human progress. Built on artificial islands, and drawing heavily on the elate-and-awe effects of wide horizons, large window fronts and sweeping views of the magical flying machines out on the apron, they instill excitement and anticipation in their visitors. Even if you're not as fond of "airworld" as I am, you will be put into travelling mood by these temples of transport.

Every time I step into an airport, that magical aura of airline logos, exotic destinations on the departure board and an international crowd zipping about instantly enchant me - rarely more so than under the roof of Hong Kong's magnificient hub, which has been the pivot of many a memorable trip. So imagine my surprise, and satisfaction, when I discovered that Beijing's Terminal 3, also by Norman Foster, follows the same design lines, except for a color palette changed to hues of red, in a nod to Chinese preferences and the terminal's design theme of "dragon spine". As it emerges from the city's perennial smog haze, its reseblance to the mythical creature's curved back cannot be denied. Inside, it awaits with all the modern conveniences one needs before being catapulted through the skies to destinations in the Middle Kingdom and beyond.

In doing so, it successfully treads the thin line between adhering to international standards of design and terminology, and providing passing travellers with a local flavor. In the same vein, Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi charms with beautifully landscaped (albeit seemingly inaccessible) tropical gardens, while little flower pots labled "welcome to KIX", tended by local school kids, attest to the diligence and sense of purpose of the Japanese. Add to this the quintessential Asian efficiency and courtesy (white-gloved security inspectors, anyone?), and passing through these airports becomes an experience as elating and uplifting as a visit to a baroque cathedral may have been centuries ago. Who could doubt the positive effects of globalization and connectivity in such a setting?

Although the midfield terminal at my last stop, the intimately familiar Zurich airport, is by no means dated, it seemed quaint and puny compared to the Asian mega-ports I had just called at. And yet, travelling through ZRH will always remain a unique experience to me: Not just for the fact that friends and family will be waiting beyond the sliding doors, but precisely for the cozy hominess the place exudes. After all, Zurich is the only airport where cowbells and yodeling welcome you on the inter-terminal shuttle, while a blonde Heidi blows you a kiss through the train's window. And so, much like a devout catholic may enjoy the odd visit to St. Peter's before returning to his local chapel, I am touched by the Asian cathedrals of travel. But it is that airfield in Kloten that I will always return to.

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