The Cultured Traveller, December 2019-February 2020 Issue 28 – Boarding Pass


The Cultured Traveller takes a look around Beijing’s new architecturally stunning, ultra-high-tech USD 12 billion mega airport, conceived by the late Zaha Hadid

With more people taking to the skies than ever before, flying today having more in common with mass transit, and there being no sign that the growing aviation industry will ever slow down, the drive to build bigger airports to handle more passengers as quickly as possible is quite literally unstoppable.

No sooner has the world’s largest airport or the planet’s biggest new terminal swung its airbridges into position to offload passengers, than a newer, bigger and more shiny aeronautical behemoth nears completion, with another in the works and many more in the pipeline.

In the past five years alone, the accolade of being the world’s most expensive new airport has passed between half a dozen countries and billions have been spent to create more elaborate and fanciful structures dedicated to air travel, or temples to flying, if you will.

In 2020, more money will be lavished on elaborate new airports than ever before. This is because airports have principally become status symbols for countries and governments are hiring starchitects to create them, with the next generation of designers focusing on the airport as a destination rather than a thoroughfare.

Consequently, verdant gardens, towering real trees, translucent roofs, cascading indoor waterfalls, sprawling shopping malls, integrated rail transportation and even cinemas have all become regular features of a 21st century airport. This has often been at the expense of the traveller, who, at some new airports, must walk kilometres before reaching the baggage reclaim. So, there is still a long way to go to make new mega airports more people friendly.

Right now, in the Middle East and Asia for sure, every major new airport is essentially a status symbol erected to demonstrate the wealth, strength and power of its location.

If China wanted to assert its prominence on the world trade stage, it has achieved this and more via the recent opening of Beijing’s breathtaking new Daxing Airport. What’s more, Daxing simply acts as a second airport for the Chinese capital, relieving the pressure on Beijing’s Capital International Airport, which hit its annual capacity of 100 million passengers some time ago.

In terms of architectural aviation beauty, Trump’s America doesn’t have an airport that comes close to Xi Jinping’s latest cathedral to air travel, which cost an estimated USD 12 billion to build. Unsurprisingly, Daxing was designed by the late, great architect Zaha Hadid and current studio principal Patrik Schumacher, along with airport specialist ADPI.

In Daxing, the legacy of trailblazing Iraqi-born Hadid – the best-known female architect of all time – very much lives on. In her astounding and audacious buildings – edifices she skilfully fashioned to act as emblematic symbols strewn across our planet – Hadid left behind theatrical beacons of architectural hope upon her untimely passing in 2016.

Spanning 18 square miles and boasting four runways (with three more planned), construction of Daxing began at the end of 2014 under Jinping, took just shy of five years to complete and opened bang on time. That’s Chinese efficiency for you. By comparison, Qatar’s massive Hamad International Airport opened four years late in 2013 amid countless delays and much acrimony.

Resembling an enormous space-age starfish, 46km south of the Chinese capital, Daxing is the largest single-building terminal in the world. Courtesy of its five-armed design, 79 airbridges are connected directly to the terminal. The passengers of six, full double-decker A380 aircraft can be disembarked simultaneously without blinking. That’s more than 3,000 passengers coming off multiple aircraft in a matter of minutes.

Where so many modern airports let passengers down, Daxing positively shines, since due to the radial configuration of its compact 700,000 sqm terminal, the farthest boarding gate can be accessed in just an 8-minute walk.

Echoing the basic principles of traditional Chinese architecture that organises interconnected rooms around a central courtyard for ease of access, Daxing seamlessly guides passengers through the relevant zones towards a grand, multi-layered meeting space at the center of the terminal – the airport’s beating heart. Bathed in natural light, thanks to a vaulted glass roof and a network of linear skylights, Zaha Hadid Architects refers to this inner area as a “central orientation space dome”. Daxing’s check-in island, international and domestic security desks and domestic retail area are arranged on four different levels here.

Colossal structural spans, some of up to 100 metres, create generous and absolutely beautiful public spaces, enticing travellers to pause, linger and look. Attention to detail and architectural beauty abound at Daxing, which seamlessly merges aviation with form and function.

A sixth arm – the Northeast Pier – radiating outwards from the centre, contains an 80,000 sqm ground transportation hub which offers fast and direct connections to Beijing, the national high-speed rail network and local train services, as well as offices and a hotel.

Given the grandeur of Daxing, it’s only fitting that the airport’s only in-terminal hotel should be equally as grand and 215-room Aerotel Beijing doesn’t disappoint. Spread across two floors and more than 9,000 sqm, the hotel is positioned just 10 minutes from the airport’s international check-in desks. Six room categories, sporting a minimal and neutral design aesthetic, offer high-quality bedding, pillow menus, power showers, multiple light settings, high-speed Wi-Fi and in-room IPTV. Guests can stay for 3, 6, 9 or 12 hours, so there’s no need to pay for a full day if you’re transiting Daxing and just need to catch-up on some shut eye.

Whilst nothing can make up for the emissions coming from the aircraft taking-off from it, Daxing is the most environmentally friendly airport in the world. Powered by solar panels with a centralised heating system and waste heat recovery supported by a ground-source heat pump, Daxing also has inbuilt rainwater collection and water management systems.

Already capable of serving 45 million passengers per year, Daxing is expected to accommodate 72 million by 2025. Further planned expansion will increase the airport’s annual capacity to 100 million travellers and 4 million tonnes of cargo.

Not just an architectural marvel but also a delight to look at and a joy to pass through, hopefully the newest holder of the title of the world’s biggest airport will retain its crown for a few years, not least due to Daxing’s overwhelming aviation splendour.

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