Mosque of Mobility

Ulf Meyer
16. January 2019
Aerial rendering of new Istanbul Airport with Black Sea on the horizon (Image via iGA)

Europe has a new center: Istanbul Airport. In the 19th century major train stations were celebrated as "cathedrals of traffic." Thus the new mega-airports in the Middle East could be called "mosques of mobility."

In Doha, Abu Dhabi and, of course, Dubai, some of the largest and most magnificent airports in the world have been built in record time. In October 2018 a mega-airport was inaugurated on Istanbul's European side. It is President Erdogan's architectural legacy: authoritarian presidents can get big projects done. The controversial Turkish president has fuelled his country's economic crisis with several prestigious infrastructure projects such as bridges and tunnels, modernizing Turkey’s largest city.

Istanbul’s airports are some of the most well-connected in the world, not least because of location, record growth, and Turkish Airlines, which evolved from a third-tier shuttle to a respected international airline that serves more destinations than any other airline. Giving Istanbul the largest airport in the world with 150 million passengers per anum sounds like sheer megalomania. But this third airport in Istanbul, after Atatürk on the European side and Sabiha Gökçen on the Asian side, is urgently needed; last year 95 million passengers flew via the city on two continents.

New Istanbul Airport under construction in September 2018 (Photo: Jekader/Wikimedia Commons)

On the first day of November, flight operations began at Istanbul Airport. In March, all equipment will be transferred by truck from Atatürk Airport to the new airport and Atatürk Airport will be closed. Istanbul Airport is already one of the five largest in Europe. A consortium has been formed for the construction and operation of the mega-airport with an operating licence until the year 2030. It raised seven billion euros in construction costs and built the airport in just over three years: Two terminals for 90 million passengers first; later, more runways and terminals will be added. More than 6,000 hectares of state-owned forest were cleared and 600,000 trees felled to make room for the new airport. The new gateway to Turkey could soon knock giant airports like Atlanta and Chicago in the USA from their pedestal.

The architectural role model of the new Turkish airport is London Stansted, where this kind of modular and translucent roof was first introduced. The lead architect of the mega-airport in Istanbul is Nicholas Grimshaw from London. With his Terminal 2 at Heathrow and design of airports in Zurich and St. Petersburg, the architect has proven that his firm can control the design of big airports down to the detail, both technically and aesthetically.

Interior photograph of new Istanbul Airport as it neared completion (Image via iGA)

The bright, tall and airy halls offer easy orientation; the simple organization of the floor plan hides the true size of the mammoth building; and the architectural design stages a memorable moment of arrival and farewell. But the architects wanted to give the airport near the Black Sea coast a touch of the "culture of Istanbul," in Grimshaw’s words. The geometric culture of the arabesques can be found in the domed ceiling vaults, which are perforated with round skylights. Bundled natural light accentuates key areas inside such as check-in desks and security controls. The new "Gateway between the Worlds" subtly combines Oriental and Western architectural elements. Passengers should feel relaxed and safe, even as some may still remember the terrorist attack on Atatürk in 2016.

​Recent airport design has finally returned to being roof architecture more than anything else. It is mastered by British architects. Richard Roger’s stunning design for Madrid Barajas Airport showed that large halls need not be bland monuments to dictators, but can be architectural jewels that are easy to navigate and enjoy. French author Marc Augé coined the phrase "non-lieu (or “non-place" in English) arguing that airports should turn from being a mere place of passage to an actual place with a distinct identity. Istanbul's huge new hub is not a mere traffic funnel lacking a sense of place like some airports from earlier generations.

Interior photograph of new Istanbul Airport as it neared completion (Image via iGA)

Hub airports have increasingly taken on “the function of the medieval market place in the postmodern city” writes British architectural critic Deyan Sudjic, since “the airport is one of the few places that almost the entire city population frequented several times a year.” The modern mega-airport is no longer just a place of arrival or departure – it is a destination in itself. The fact that they are increasingly run as businesses also has a down-side for architecture: Newly built air terminals are planned with patterns of movement tailored to the optimal placement of retail space and thus maximum revenue. Passengers must pass through lavishly equipped retail arcades en route to their aircraft. Departure areas of modern airports are seamlessly transformed into full-fledged shopping malls.

Hub airports can feel like confusing burrows or as beloved “Gateways to the World.” It all depends on their architectural design. From a former solitary building outside the city, the airport has become the gateway to a region and its economic engine. Because of constant growth, many airports have become confusing and entangled building conglomerates. Finding the original terminal form under layers of additions and conversions is often a nearly archaeological task. Contemporary aviation architecture therefore finds its way back to "one-stop" terminals where successful airport architecture becomes the architectural calling card of an entire nation.

Control tower at the new Istanbul Airport (Image via iGA)

The more complex the airport logistics, the easier the buildings have become. Simple forms such as large halls, which offer cohesion to a program that has grown to the dimensions of a city, the return to a spatial staging of aviation, and an architectural reference to the region are their three principles. The new Istanbul Airport features all three. When asked what inspired the architect in his design for Istanbul’s new mega-airport, Grimshaw said it was the light of Süleymaniye Mosque, a legitimate forerunner of this new "traffic mosque" of our times.

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