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Monday, July 6, 1998 Published at 15:39 GMT 16:39 UK

World: Analysis

Hong Kong airport - is it art?

See through glass reveals more at Hong Kong's new airport.

The BBC's Arts Correspondent Razia Iqbal looks at the architecture of Hong Kong's spectacular new airport.

To define an airport as a work of art is not an instinctive association, but in the case of the new Hong Kong airport at Chek Lap Kok it is clear that in the second half of this century, building airports is a prestigious and artistic endeavour.

Hailed as the most ambitious engineering project ever, the world's largest airport does make a spectacular statement.

Sir Norman Foster, the British architect of Chek Lap Kok, has described his building as a celebration of the modern age of air travel.

Nearly a century after the Wright brothers successfully sustained an aircraft in the air, flight is something which is now taken for granted all over the world.

Yet most airports are designed so that passengers do not normally see the aircraft at all, so most people have no sense of the adventure of the flying machines, says Jonathan Glancey, architecture critic for the Guardian newspaper.

Jonathan Glancey, architecture critic for the Guardian, says that by seeing the aircraft one can feel the magic of flying.
"They just see boring office like interiors, boring people being bored, buying useless bits of duty free.

"What Foster says is: 'Hey look, flight really is a magical thing'. His building allows you to see the aircraft as soon as you walk in. It enables you to feel you're up in the air with the aircraft too, it's about excitement, it's about passion."

The airport rises out of the South China Sea and looms on the horizon like a giant sea creature
[ image: Hong Kong's new airport - where form follows function]
Hong Kong's new airport - where form follows function
which has landed.

There are overwhelming statistics bearing testament to this architectural and engineering odyssey: the 45 acres of light-weight steel roof can be seen from spacecraft orbiting Earth; it has its own internal rail network; it is 1.27km long, and during construction, on any given day up to 21,000 workers were on site.

It is simplicity, even on a grand scale, that translates into powerful architecture, Sir Norman Foster says of his design.

"The airport ... has to create an experience which feels good," says architect Sir Norman Foster.
"The airport has to work operationally, it has to minimise walking distances, it has to maximise frontage for aircraft, it has to anticipate the next generation of very large jets.

"It is about all of us who use airports. It has to create an experience which feels good.

"It does have this flowing streamline shape and that has been made possible by a lot of recent advances in computer technology, the ability to be able to model and to harness industry to make those soaring vaults, and those continuous curves out of relatively small simple elements."

Just as Frank Gehry's new Guggenheim Mueseum in the Spanish city of Bilbao, or Cesar Pelli's high rise twin towers in Kuala Lumpur, Norman Foster's airport is likely to become a symbol of the city.

A symbol and a centre of activity, in the way that churches and cathedrals or town halls were once.

"The airport is like a cathedral." Jonathan Glancey, architecture critic for the Guardian.
"Oddly enough things like shopping malls become almost like cathedrals of our age, says Jonathan Glancey.

"So is the airport. It is a place where millions of people criss-cross through and meet each other and they do have a sense of religious occasion and there are rituals we go through, checking in, talking to these people who boss us around, they're like priests; they're always telling us what to do.

"So the airport is like a cathedral, and Foster has designed it rather like that. It actually has the feeling of a great gothic cathedral in modern materials."

From an aesthetic viewpoint, it's hard to find anyone who has a bad thing to say about Sir Norman Foster's building.

In spite of the depressed economic climate in the region, the airport is already being perceived as the physical manifestation of renewal and regeneration.

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