Architecture a late arrival at Athens Airport

Back in March 2001, new architecture arrived in Athens almost by stealth. The opening in Spata of Eleftherios Venizelos Airport, Athens’s new international hub, spearheaded the modernization claims of Costas Simitis’s government. It could not have come at a better time, in the framework of preparations for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, a massive construction effort that could chime with the notion of Greece as a place of major projects. The Attiki Odos was ready in time for the opening at Spata; Athenians were delighted with the new freeway; and the old airport at Hellenikon passed into history overnight. Amid the euphoria, few noticed that the new airport looked like «an ultra-luxurious shed,» as members of an association in Kozani noted in a letter they sent to Costas Laliotis, then minister of the environment, physical planning and public works. An ultra-luxurious shed, so neutral that it could be taken as an architectural statement in reverse. But it wasn’t. Luckily there is a control tower so we can find the terminal among the numerous look-alike boxes that have been planted in the fields of Mesogeion. The German company that undertook the entire project of building and operating the airport clearly saved money by skipping architectural competitions and other time-consuming procedures. They knew which country they were dealing with – one that would be holding the Olympic Games without creating a new piece of monumental architecture, apart from Santiago Calatrava’s work at the Olympic Stadium. It is no surprise, a mere seven years since the opening in March 2001, that the airport already looks old. Its many internationally acknowledged – and award-winning – features seem to fade in the background when discussion shifts from the functional to the aesthetic. At a time when architecture has become a prime factor in the global game of getting attention, the Athenian exception does not go unnoticed. Closed competition The airport authorities have learnt their lesson. Now that a 50 percent increase in passenger traffic has made it imperative to extend the airport so as to improve customer services, there is room for some architecture. They announced a closed competition, which was won by the studio of Theofanis Bobotis, whose previous work includes the Wurth building on the national highway, the Patras Museum and the new archaeological museum in Hania. The project involves two separate areas with different functions. It will create a link between the main terminal building and the satellite building, which goes largely unseen at the moment since it is not used by passengers, while adding an extension to the body of the main building. Will these additions be sufficient to give the airport a better look? Bobotis has a distinctive personal style. He likes flowing, aerodynamic shapes that often have a pronounced plasticity, as in the eye-catching bridge he has designed to link the two buildings at the airport. The plasticity of its design inside and out is reminiscent of the casing of an airplane engine. The link The link is a complex project. An extension to the existing building will provide a security control area from which pedestrian traffic can be directed to an aboveground walkway leading to the other building, which mainly serves charter flights. As Bobotis explained, it is all part of a single architectural entity, which is designed to cater to certain functions and which gives the buildings a specific identity. Its purpose, and the fact that it is an independent structure, allowed the designers to come up with «a more advanced concept than the original building,» he said. «It puts the proper emphasis on the contemporary extension to the existing building without being confused with it.» The atrium The enclosed pedestrian bridge, which contains a moving walkway, is for the most part a linear structure. It is interrupted at midpoint by a shell-like construction enclosing an elevator and stairway connecting the aboveground and belowground corridor, for use in case of emergencies. It also breaks up the long corridor with a spacious area of visual interest suitable for promotions and airport information points. The interior is shaped to facilitate passenger flow from a large area to a narrower corridor. Its conical shape conjures up the movement of air inside an aircraft engine and that sense of movement guides the passenger in the right direction. Inside this space, beyond the security checkpoints is an oval atrium surrounded by a metal shell. Natural lighting enters through linear apertures in the sides and gives passengers direct visual contact with the outside world. The overall treatment of mass and appearance is aimed at giving passengers a safe, pleasant trip all the way to the exit. The bridge will be visible night and day, both from the road and from aircraft taking off and landing. Annex The annex will join the existing terminal building on the side facing the road, and so will be visible to passengers and visitors. Level 1 will service existing operations; Level 2 has two new shopping areas; and Level 3 will house airlines’ VIP lounges. The building is in two main parts. One, which will be in direct contact with the present building, is on three levels, with an opening all round that lets in natural light. Part of its cantilevered roof will overhang the present building, allowing some natural light into a piazza below, where the shops are. It was deliberately designed as a plain solid block to act as a neutral transition.

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