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The scenic route

Plagued by political wrangling and construction setbacks, the Berlin-Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport opened in October 2020, nine years late and more than €4bn over budget. The three decades between its conception and opening led some to believe the airport would never be completed – only to see it open during the worst global pandemic in a century. Abi Millar speaks to Hans Joachim Paap, associate partner of architecture firm gmp, about the long road that followed their initial design.

When Berlin’s new Brandenburg Airport opened on 31st October 2020, it was a somewhat muted conclusion to what has been a very long story. The airport, which was first dreamed up three decades previously, had been subject to delays throughout the construction process and opened many years behind schedule.

To add to the run of bad luck, the opening date coincided with the worst global pandemic in a century, during which time air travel had almost ground to a halt. 

Brandenburg Airport – or to give it its full title, Berlin-Brandenburg Airport Willy Brandt – was built to replace the city’s old Tegel and Schoenefeld Airports, dating from 1946 and 1948 respectively. Tegel and Schoenefeld, which had sat on different sides of the Berlin Wall, belonged to an era of Cold War politics and the Berlin of the early 1990s was ready for a modern airport.

In 1991, a state-owned company (FBB) was founded to oversee its development. A site was selected near Schoenefeld Airport, 11 miles southeast of the city centre, and a tentative opening date was scheduled for 2007. The idea was to create a large commercial airport that would reflect the city’s importance, naming it after a chancellor involved with Germany’s unification.

Unfortunately, the process was plagued with setback after setback. In the end, construction didn’t get underway till 2006, with the opening date postponed to 2011, and then to 2012. Less than a month before the grand opening, the date was pushed back again due to serious fire safety concerns.

In the years since then, the airport has grappled with issues including, but not limited to: personnel changes at the top; a corruption scandal; airline insolvency issues; problems with the cabling system and faulty control of the automatic doors. As costs edged up towards €7bn (up from an original projection of €2bn) some wondered whether Berlin’s money-guzzling ‘ghost airport’ would ever see the light of day.

As of last October, those grim speculations have proved unfounded. Brandenburg Airport looks poised to be the third busiest airport in Germany once air traffic returns to normal. Terminal 1, its main building, will be able to handle around 25 million passengers a year, while the airport system as a whole has capacity for 40 million.

This includes the former Schoenefeld Airport, now redesignated as Terminal 5. Terminal 2 is yet to open, while Terminals 3 and 4 are satellite terminals that – in light of the present dip in passenger numbers – may stay that way for some time.

In contrast to the complexities (and heavy retail focus) of many recent airport designs, Brandenburg Airport offers a refreshing simplicity. Designed by German architects gmp, the firm behind Tegel Airport’s expansion in the 1970s, it is based around geometric models and is clean and minimalist in style. Despite the time between conception and completion – gmp won the competition in 1998 – the design is very much what the architects envisioned all those years ago.

“An airport is not a building but rather a process,” says Hans Joachim Paap, associate partner at gmp. “Meinhard von Gerkan [founder of gmp] once told me when I was his student: ‘To design an airport you have to think in decades’. That means you have to create a robust structure with the emphasis on good orientation and an inviting and attractive interior. While airports are first and foremost complex transport interchanges, for people they are also emotional spaces where we say goodbye and where we arrive at a specific place.”

The construction setbacks, it should be emphasised, were predominantly engineering related, and didn’t have much to do with the design itself. Nonetheless, the stop-start process did pose an architectural challenge – how could the team deal with capacity demands that were growing all the time?

During the many years of delays, passenger numbers at Berlin’s two existing airports were increasing by about 4% a year. Tegel Airport, which was originally designed for 2.5 million passengers a year, was handling nearly ten times that number by the end. 

“The fact that Berlin is experiencing a disproportionate increase in traffic volume – something that should really be welcome – created a growing demand for increased capacity even during the construction phase,” says Paap. “Knowing today’s requirements regarding capacity and security, and knowing the amount of money that was finally spent on the project, we would have provided more space in the passenger area of the airport from the beginning. One thing is clear – adjusting the design as a reaction to changing demand is no way to proceed.”

He remarks, however, that there is nothing in the overall concept that the firm would change, and that the basic configuration of the facility has remained the same.

“For a design task of this size, this is remarkable and an early indication that it will be possible to maintain design continuity during any future expansion stages,” he says. “Airport design must always allow for extensions as part of future developments and changes without compromising the system as a whole.”

Right from the outset, the architects aimed for an overall modular structure to accommodate these changes. The entire scheme was developed using a basic horizontal grid of 6.25 metres (which, multiplied by seven, corresponds to the parking width required for a category C aircraft).

All dimensions – such as the distances between the colonnades, the columns of the hall structure, and the passenger bridges – are based on this 6.25m length as the smallest common unit. It means that, in spite of the varying functions, a uniform appearance and spatial development could be achieved.

“With a midfield terminal and a central circulation axis for rail and road traffic as the ideal key elements we established, at a very early stage, important structures for flexible future developments,” says Paap. “Our design and the current masterplan of the airport company, with the main handling facilities around the Airport City, take account of that. As long as the chosen organisational system is adhered to, nothing can go wrong.”

The terminal hall, which sits above the intercity and regional railway station, forms the centrepiece of the airport. With a large cantilevering roof – covering the forecourt on the landside, the check-in area and security controls, and the visitor terrace on the airside – the building is spacious and airy, and flooded with natural light.

“Terminal 1 is and remains the core and the landmark of the entire facility that can be seen from afar,” says Paap. “Another design element is the regularly spaced colonnade structure of the drop-off and pick-up zones, which are repeated in the facades of the pier buildings and extensions. The generous proportions and clear layout of the terminal hall, together with the colonnade motif, embody the transition between architecture and landscape and are the style-defining elements of the new airport.”

He adds that areas like the check-in zone and retail arcade feature maximum room heights, because good orientation is crucial in these spaces. On the other hand, the control areas need a certain amount of screening, which is why the room height is lower.

“We felt that clear circulation routes and the atmosphere in the passenger areas should have priority,” he says. “This has been achieved with the help of natural lighting and is further enhanced by walnut wood paneling and a light-colored Jurassic limestone floor finish.”

Through opening in the middle of a pandemic, the new Brandenburg Airport has clearly not had chance to fulfill its potential, or wow the number of passengers it was designed for. During its first three months of operation, only 700,000 passengers passed through its doors. By February, the figure was down to 4,000 and 8,000 a day – a far cry from the 100,000 who visited Tegel and Schoenefeld combined pre-crisis.

Other than that, the first few months have gone quite smoothly, which – for the superstitiously inclined – might suggest its bad luck has been lifted. All signs suggest that, once the pandemic is over, the airport will play an important role in job creation and the economic recovery of the region.

“Everybody is hoping that things will change in the summer of 2021,” says Paap. “My feeling is that we won’t get back to normal public life before the spring of 2022. I also believe that aviation will take even longer to return to the pre-coronavirus level. In spite of that, and considering that Berlin Airport originally had the largest passenger volume in Germany, there will be a swift recovery. And that will continue in future, albeit perhaps at a reduced pace.”

This article appears in the Vol 1 2021 edition of Future Airport

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