Sunday, July 27, 2008
Chek Lap Kok International Airport
Hong Kong’s new international airport at Chek Lap Kok is the product of what was at the time the world’s largest engineering and architectural project—a logistical marvel that developed designs in only twentyone months and managed a workforce of up to 21,000 to build the airport facilities as well as the island on which they stand and the extensive ground transport links, in only five years. In 1999, a convention of U.S. construction executives and editors named it
one of the top ten architectural and engineering achievements of the twentieth century.
Anyone who flew into Hong Kong before mid-1998 will always remember the unnerving experience of looking directly into apartment buildings that seemed almost to touch the wingtips as the plane descended to Kai Tak Airport—a dubious thrill that is no longer part of a visit to the crowded island. Kai Tak airfield commenced operations around 1924, becoming a Royal Air Force base three years later. In 1935 it was upgraded to suit growing commercial traffic, and two more runways were added over the next twenty-five years. It was renamed Hong Kong International Airport in 1958 and underwent continual extensions and improvements as the number of flights increased at a dizzying rate. Shortly before it closed in 1998, Kai Tak was processing nearly 30 million international passengers and over 1.5 million tons (1.36 million tonnes) of international cargo every year.
There had been discussions about an out-of-town airport since the 1960s, within an international transport strategy that also included shipping; a plan to construct a new airport was announced in October 1988. Although well down the government’s list of preferred sites (after Nim Wan, Lamma Island, and Clearwater Bay), Chek Lap Kok was chosen, but not unanimously. When it opened on 6 July 1998 the new airport had an annual capacity of 2.76 million tons (2.50 million tonnes) of cargo and 35 million passengers, planned to rise to 87 million by the year 2040. The Provisional Airport Authority, charged with planning and realizing the facility, was established in April 1990. The contract, estimated at almost HK$50 billion (then equivalent to U.S.$6.4 billion), was awarded to the Mott Consortium, comprising Mott. Connell, Ove Arup and Partners; Fisher Marantz, Renfro Stone, O’Brien Kreitzberg and Associates; Wilbur Smith Associates; and the architectural firm of Norman Foster and Partners, which undertook the design of the terminal building.
The first construction stage project was the recreation of the site. In 1992 Chek Lap Kok was a 330-foot (100-meter) hilltop rising from the sea; by June 1995 dredging and reclamation had reshaped it into a 3.7-by-2.2-mile (6-by-3.5-kilometer) flat platform—about four times its original area—23 feet (7 meters) above sea level. For the first year the airport operated with a single runway. Now known as the South Runway, it is used mostly for landings; the North Runway, put into service late in August 1999, is used principally for departures. Handling an average of 450 flights a day, Chek Lap Kok has forty-eight frontal aircraft gates at the terminal, twenty-seven on the apron, and thirteen cargo gates.
The 1,400-yard-long (1.27-kilometer), nine-level terminal building, under 45 acres (18 hectares) of 120-foot-wide (36-meter) steel barrel vaults, is the largest enclosed public space ever built. An indicator of the logistical achievement of the entire project, the superstructure of the vast Y-shaped building was completed in only three years. Its design was constrained by off-site fabrication of components that could be site-assembled, in much the same way as Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace 150 years earlier. The air-cooled central terminal space, over 1,000 feet (300 meters) wide, houses the usual airport functions. More than 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) of moving walkways carry incoming passengers along the 2,400-foot (720-meter) concourse, through the baggage hall, to 124 immigration desks and seventy-six custom positions. Departing passengers are served by 288 check-in desks. Dimensions are difficult to convey; suffice it to say that the baggage hall alone is as big as New York’s Yankee Stadium, and the fully automatic baggage-handling system can process 19,000 items an hour. There is also the inevitable shopping area—the “Hong Kong Sky Mall”—in five zones and comprising 154 specialist retail, food, and drink outlets. Nearby, the twelve-story Regal Airport Hotel, with 1,100 rooms and connected to the passenger terminal by a covered walkway, completes the facility. Internal shuttle trains run through a 20-foot-high (6-meter) tunnel, 106 feet (32 meters) wide, beneath the building. The design of Chek Lap Kok allows for expansion that will include an additional concourse and passenger terminal, as well as additional air cargo, catering, and maintenance facilities.
Chek Lap Kok was complemented by a complex Airport Core Project involving several elements and costing HK$ 155.3 billion (about U.S.$20 billion). The high-speed Airport Express Railway, part of Hong Kong’s mass-transit rail link, and 21 miles (34 kilometers) of 3-lane highway across the Tsing Ma Bridge (the world’s longest road-rail suspension bridge) provide alternative routes between the airport and Kowloon and further through the new Western Tunnel to Hong Kong Island and the central business district. The scheme also includes a new town for 150,000 people, because height restrictions, so necessary for Kai Tak Airport, have now been lifted. And, of course, the 2,350-acre (940-hectare) Kai Tak site became free for redevelopment. Plans are in hand for mixed commercial and recreational uses among residential towers accommodating 300,000 people. Work should be completed by 2003.