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On cloud nine: Michael Webb visited the new terminal just after it opened and discovered a rare oasis of calm and civility.

Beijing Airport is an unequivocal masterpiece: the culmination of everything this team has striven to achieve for forty years, in the lucidity of its plan, the boldness of its expression and the audacity of its structure. The world's largest building seems ready to fly away. In the early 1990s, when Foster was asked to talk about his favourite piece of architecture for the BBC TV series Building Sights, he chose the Boeing 747. 'This machine blurs the distinction between technology and building, and what's more it flies', he remarked. 'I believe all modern architecture is capable of this intrinsic style and beauty without compromising its function.'

Now this passionate flier, who distilled airport design to its essentials at Stansted, and gave it a heroic sweep at Chek Lap Kok, has embraced the grandeur of China in a single arc as authoritative as the brush stroke of a master calligrapher. As you approach the terminal, it seems to rise above the horizon, like another world. You struggle to grasp the scale; it must be half a mile across. Little peaks appear above the canopy like ridges on the back of a dragon. The arc dips below the departure level. You suppose that it is embedded in the foundations before rising again at the sides, but it stops short and seems to rest on the last of a slender enfilade of tapered red columns. These and the red trusses glimpsed through a soffit of aluminium strips (along with triangular skylights), pay tribute to a colour the Chinese hold dear, and there's even a hint of gold in the upturned knife-edge of the canopy.

And then you are inside, drawn forward through a wide, tapered funnel, down polished granite ramps that reflect a thousand points of light from the ceiling spots and overlook the arrivals hall. Other ramps lead back to the shallow glass shell that canopies the parking structure outside the terminal. The roof swoops down as the concourse narrows. In contrast to Terminal Five at Heathrow, which descended into chaos on day one, Beijing is phasing in flights at a slow pace and there was little traffic on a Saturday evening in late April, a month after the inauguration.

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Then, the terminal offered an experience you can scarcely imagine. There really is, on this planet, a huge international airport that is easy to navigate and a pleasure to use. Its architecture leads you through with little need for signage. Clean lines are suffused with light and a sense of limitless space. There is a mezzanine of stylish restaurants with staff begging you to enjoy their hospitality and waving you a fond farewell. Smiling attendants offering information; uncrowded check-in desks and no waiting line for passport control. A clear division between domestic and international departures. A train to speed you to each group of gates, and people-movers to carry you to the point of departure. A dream? Will it be this good when it begins to reach capacity? Probably not, but it should still have the capacity to awe and delight its users.

A bilingual poster, pitched to residents and visitors, exhorted: 'Welcome the Olympics! Improve Manners! Foster New Attitudes!' Norman has fulfilled his part of that injunction.

Michael Webb is an architectural writer and regular contributor to the AR, He guest edited last month's special issue on China.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:travellers' tales
Author:Webb, Michael
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Aug 1, 2008
Words:559
Previous Article:On site: involving a cast of thousands, building Beijing was a titantic endeavour of will and manpower.
Next Article:Three is the magic number; Catherine Slessor flew from London to Beijing, from airport purgatory to airport paradise.
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