Stansted Airport challenged all the rules of airport terminal design. It went back to the roots of modern air travel and literally stood conventional wisdom on its head. The earliest airport buildings were very simple: on one side there was a road and on the other a field where aircraft landed into the wind. The route from landside to airside involved a walk from your car through the terminal and out to your plane, which was always in view. Stansted attempted to recapture the clarity of those early airfields, together with some of the lost romance of air travel.

From the traveller's point of view, movement through the building is straightforward and direct - there are none of the level changes and orientation problems that characterise most airports. Passengers progress in a fluid movement from the set-down point through to the check-in area, passport control and departure lounges, where they can see the planes. From there, an automated tracked transit system takes them to satellite buildings to board their aircraft. This degree of clarity was achieved by turning the building 'upside down', banishing the heavy environmental services usually found at roof level to an undercroft that runs beneath the concourse. The undercroft also contains baggage handling and was able to accommodate a mainline railway station, which was integrated into the building late in the design process.

Service distribution systems are contained within the 'trunks' of the structural 'trees' that rise from the undercroft through the concourse floor. These trees support a roof canopy that is freed simply to keep out the rain and let in light. Entirely daylit on all but the most overcast of days, the constantly changing play of light gives the concourse a poetic dimension and also has significant energy and economic advantages, leading to running costs that are half those of any other British terminal. Energy efficient, environmentally discreet within its rural setting, technologically advanced yet simple to use and experience, Stansted has become a model for airport planners and designers worldwide.

There is a brand of logic within the Foster office ideally suited to the design of airports; identify the main human problem, invent a system to cope with it and pursue the result with ruthless rationality.

The Architectural Review

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