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Terminal 3 secures Bao’an International Airport as an international gateway to China, and it should help Shenzhen, one of the world’s fastest-growing cities, shed its image as a drab economic engine. Much like the Bird’s Nest – the centrepiece of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which captured the global imagination as a symbol of the new China – Terminal 3 presents a shockingly new architecture in a familiar figure. Visitors have likened it to a manta ray, or a landscape complete with rolling hills and ponds.

The references are many, but none are architectural. The usual conventions that would enable us to recognize a roof, a facade or a window are jettisoned in favour of a total design that reinvents the airport from scratch. It is this total design aspect that architects Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas recognize as the building’s most significant contribution. Says Doriana, “We delivered a total environment that invests value in every aspect of the travel experience.”

The terminal, which adds 63 gates to the airport, consists of a steel frame structure with three ­levels separating arrivals, services and departures in a 1.5-kilometre concourse. The entire structure is wrapped in a biomorphic shell dotted with light-filtering hexagonal apertures that lend the complex a homogeneous form. Smoothness is achieved via a plastic architectural language developed in a parametric modelling environment. It enables the profile of the building to morph into different configurations to meet spatial and functional demands, while maintaining a consistent geometric and structural logic.

The double skin is not only structural, it also optimizes the building’s environmental performance, and the cavity within integrates a host of building systems. It performs like a living epidermis, negotiating dynamic exchanges between both interior and exterior environments.

The filigree of hexagonal cells is calibrated to diffuse daylight while mitigating passive solar heat gain. Rather than an end in itself, the intricacy of the customized panels acts as a means for the orchestration of ineffable phenomena. Total design reaches into the realm of atmospherics, insists Doriana, whose team in Rome painstakingly modelled daylight into physical mock-ups as a critical aspect of the terminal’s immersive experience.

The same attention was brought to the artificial lighting and nighttime effects, by Speirs + Major of London. LEDs within the shell, hidden from sight throughout the terminal, create a lantern effect and enhance the building’s contours. “The beauty of the form is more evident at night, thanks to the flattering light,” says designer Keith Bradshaw.

The most surprising aspect, though, may be the speed at which it was built: five years, from the initial competition to the inauguration in November 2013. China’s accelerated construction processes are invariantly blamed for poor building quality, but Doriana thinks otherwise. She credits the accelerated process for preserving the freshness of the idea; any imperfections and inevitable glitches don’t bother her. More important is to realize a project before its creative energy is dulled with endless revisions and protracted building schedules.

Studio Fuksas is now established in Shenzhen, where it sees a unique combination of political, economic and cultural circumstances that enable groundbreaking architecture. I asked Doriana whether she could imagine a project like this in Europe. She answers unequivocally: “Absolutely not. This architecture is only possible in China.”

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