Landing on its Feet

With a stylish redesign by Foster + Partners, Amman’s new airport terminal is changing the face of the nation


John Burns


Nigel Young


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Essentially factories for processing an overwhelming amount of people, aeroplanes, vehicles, cargo and luggage every day, airports are, traditionally, a logistical nightmare to design. There is no building type that epitomises the age-old architectural debate of whether form should follow function or vice versa as purely as an airport terminal does. Yet Foster + Partners, in collaboration with local architecture practice Maisam, approached the problem with imagination.

For Queen Alia International Airport, or QAIA as it locally abbreviated, aside from developing a passenger experience that feels straightforward and logical, as if the building itself were guiding passengers from the entrance to the aeroplane, the two firms also designed the terminal as an aesthetically exhilarating place to be.

Continuing Foster + Partner’s vision for airport terminals to be environmentally sensitive, regionally apt structures that resonate with a sense of place and local culture, Jonathan Parr – a partner at the firm and the architect in charge of the QAIA project – says, ‘There is no “one size fits all” approach [to designing an airport]– every place is different, and the design of every airport has to provide a unique symbol of the city and country it represents. While Beijing airport’s palette of reds and yellows helps to make it a distinctly Chinese building, Queen Alia evokes aspects of traditional Jordanian culture and architecture, but in a very contemporary way. It is a very open, welcoming building – a fitting gateway to Amman.’

Opened in March 2013, the result is a quiet, friendly triumph where stylish contemporary design evokes the nation’s ancient heritage. Meisa Batayneh, founder and principal architect of Maisam, explains how centuries of Jordan’s cultural framework is physically incarnate in that of the building. The terminal’s tessellated roof canopy – comprised of a series of shallow concrete domes – can, she says, be interpreted in many different ways.

‘From the air, its geometry arises from the simple orderly lines of a basic Islamic pattern and its black colour also gives the impression of a huge Bedouin tent in the middle of the pale brown desert.’ Despite each dome weighing up to 600 tonnes, from ground level they appear lightweight and suspended, seemingly undulating as if wafting in the breeze. It makes one think of movement, while still appearing serene.

Inside, the soffits of these domes branch out from supporting columns, mimicking the flowing lines of a desert palm; an arboreal effect bolstered by the geometric Islamic patterns applied to each exposed underside that echo the veins of a leaf.

Batayneh describes how the Bedouin motif also transcends to the interior, ‘A result of generations of tradition and craftsmanship, [the local Beduoin tent] is carefully crafted out of dark brown goat’s hair and inlaid with horizontal white stripes… This inspiration guided the design of the building’s internal cladding, which is composed of panels of dark brown, back painted glass arranged horizontally with strips of white in between.’

By mixing local gravel with the concrete, the organic lines of the terminal’s walls harmonise with the natural shades of local sand. Similarly, a special conglomerate floor tile, used throughout the building, was carefully designed to reflect the colours and texture of the local desert floor. Such attention to detail is implemented throughout – even in the public toilets, the marble and local stone was chosen to match Petra’s colour palette.

When asked which feature most defines the building, Parr says, ‘It would be easy to say the roof, which is the most striking characteristic of the structure, but perhaps the defining architectural feature is the use of daylight. One of the most innovative aspects of the design is the way that natural light is drawn into the building, while protecting it from direct sunlight, heat and glare – it is filtered through the split beams at the column junctions and the glazed façades, and bounces into the terminal using reflective pools in the landscaped courtyards.’

These courtyards, Batayneh explains, are another staple design element of local architecture, both from a social and functional point of view. ‘[The courtyard] is traditionally a private outdoor space for family and friends, providing shade in the summer heat and a place for warmth in the sun during winter.’ QAIA is wrapped around two large courtyard gardens full of trees and large pools. Visible from most areas in the terminal, they create a contrast between the surrounding desert and the lusciously cool respite of the airport, creating the effect of an oasis. They also serve as a concourse, where friends and families can await and greet arriving loved ones.

In designing an airport, architects not only have to consider the needs of airlines, security, the building’s sustainability, operational demands and future flexibility, but, above all, focus on the experience of the passenger. ‘Our aim is always to make using an airport as straightforward and pleasant as possible,’ Parr says.

Apart from its swooping beauty, the most enjoyable aspect for passengers is the terminal’s clarity and simplicity. ‘It is easy and enjoyable to use. Routes through the building are clear, you can see the aircraft on the runway and passengers can orient themselves and find their way around intuitively, helping to minimise the stress of travelling,’ he says.

Captain Osama Shakman, head of the flight operations department and a pilot for Amman’s incumbent airline, Royal Jordanian, enthuses that the terminal’s design has improved the quality of his working day. ‘It used to take so long to get from crew dispatch to the runway. It was 20 to 25 minutes away and I used to get to the aircraft sweating. As a pilot, what I like about the new terminal is that the crew dispatch is actually in the terminal itself. There’s bigger hallways, more space and as you’re walking you can look outside. Before, there was nothing to see.’

Another indication of Jordan’s future ambitions is that the new terminal is modular in design, allowing room for both future physical expansion and sustainable increases in passenger volume each year. By 2030, the government hope to be welcoming 12.8 million passengers per annum – a strategic foresight that has not gone unnoted elsewhere in the Middle East. Following Jordan’s lead, the Kuwaiti government has since commissioned Foster + Partners to construct its new international airport, to be completed in 2016.

This article appears in the issue42Buy Now