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The 'dragon' unveiled: Beijing's T3 starts operations

The 'dragon' unveiled: Beijing's T3 starts operations

(BEIJING, Feb. 29) -- On March 28, 2004, the sounds of construction could be heard around Beijing's Capital Airport. Three years, nine months, and 27 billion yuan later, terminal 3 (T3) was born. Standing at 986,000 square meters, T3 is Asia's largest free standing construction and the world's largest airport terminal complex. On Friday, it officially opens its doors for operation.

From the air, the new terminal looks like a giant red dragon. Through the ingenuity of designer Norman Foster, the curve of the complex, the shape of the roof, even the color of the terminal, were based on the traditional Chinese mythical creature.

The terminal can be identified through five areas that bring out the shape of the dragon: the "pearl (in the dragon's mouth)" the "dragon's body" the "dragon's spine," the "dragon's scales," and the "dragon's beard."

The "pearl (in the dragon's mouth)" refers to the ground transportation center (GTC) of the terminal, which includes a parking system that will enable 7,000 cars to park on its area of 340,000 square meters.

The "dragon's body" is the most important part of the terminal. It includes the T3C building and the T3D and T3E international hall. T3C is home to the domestic and international baggage claims areas and will handle domestic and international boarding procedures. T3D will temporarily be used for charter flights for the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics, and T3E will handle international departures and arrivals. The three concourses take up 428,000 square meters, a total of 2,900 meters from north to south and 790 meters from east to west at a height of 45 meters.

The hyperbolic arched roof of the main building makes up the "dragon's spine." This is the most eye-catching aspect of terminal 3. Here, pieces of steel in 12 different colors form a solid grid, creating an image of a spectacular dragon about to take flight.

155 triangular skylights are affixed to the ceiling of the new terminal. From a distance, these can shine brilliantly, thereby looking like the "scales" of a dragon. The skylights allow sunlight to filter into every corner of the terminal. This kind of natural lighting is the first to be used in domestic airports.

The "dragon's beard" points to the extensive transportation network leading to the airport. The expansion project included plans for traffic engineering, incorporating three highways, a light rail, and a local road.

Foster, one of the top architectural designers in the world, noted that the end result of the airport expansion project was larger even than he had imagined. He compared Beijing's airport, which took less than four years to complete, to London's Heathrow airport, which reached its current scale after 50 years of development, emphasizing the rapid speed at which China is growing.

Terminal 3 is huge. Just how huge? It's large enough to handle the take off and landing of what is currently the world's largest aircraft, the A380. "To get an idea of the scale," says Foster, "imagine Heathrow terminals 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 together under one roof and then add an extra 17% of floor space. It's so big that in certain lights, you can't see one end of the building from the other."

Another way to calculate its size is to compare the new terminal with the existing terminals in Beijing's airport. Terminals 1 and 2 currently have a capacity of about 35 million passengers a year, covering a space of about 416,000 square meters. Terminal 3 on its own can hold 45 to 50 million passengers and sits on an area of nearly 1 million square meters.

Another Beijing landmark

Beijing's Capital Airport was initially completed on March 1, 1958. Then, the complex covered an area of 10,138 square meters, and during peak hours, accommodated only about 230 passengers. Since China's reforms began, opening up the country to the outside world, development occurred at an amazingly rapid pace. In 1991, passengers using the airport reached 8.7 million, more than the designed capacity of its lone terminal. Another terminal was needed. 336,000 square meters later, terminal 2 was born. In 2005, 35 million passengers passed through the airport. In order to accommodate Beijing's growing reputation as an international hub, and in anticipation of the increased passenger flow expected with the coming of the Olympics, the city decided to expand the airport, bring T3 into being.

T3 is "very Chinese." Designers wanted the airport to feel like Beijing, not like a conglomerate of other places. The path from T3's domestic hall to the international hall is marked by a change of color in the steel ceiling grid, from bright red (symbolizing happiness) to golden yellow (symbolizing dignity). This color change is also reflected in the steel supports running through the terminal, the airport counters, and even the seats. This bold use of color may bring to mind images of Beijing's Forbidden City walls and traditional Chinese folk lanterns, differentiating it from other airports. Each of these touches amount to a warm and lively message: Welcome to Beijing.

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