Andreu departs from airport architecture, branches out

Paul Andreu is done with airports. He’s built enough of them to solidify himself, in the minds of many, as the greatest airport architect ever. But now, the man who designed Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, among countless others, is branching out — to projects like his recently completed egg-shaped opera house at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Andreu, who spoke at the Yale University Art Gallery last night in a discussion titled “Flux — Movement — Form,” sat down with the News for an interview yesterday afternoon.

Q: What’s it like when you walk through an airport you designed?

A: Oh, it used to be terrible. I’m never satisfied with my work. When I was younger, I was completely pained when in one of my airports — errors everywhere! I try to forget when I’m in an airport; I try just to be the ordinary traveler.

Q: I was at Charles de Gaulle Airport recently …

A: Don’t tell me they lost one of your bags! People always complain to me about that, but there’s nothing I can do.

Q: Will you build any more airports?

A: No, I don’t think I will. I had some last concepts, but they didn’t go through immediately, so I think I’m done. But in a way, I’ve known the airport in a period where [it was] very interesting. We spoke all the time of concepts. And I could go from the concepts to the building in continuity. Now it’s not like that anymore; you’ve got people telling you what kind of concept you must use, what kind of airport is the best. It’s like office buildings.

Q: Is the Opera House your greatest work?

A: Definitely. Absolutely. It’s the most important building in my life — because it’s in the center of Beijing, because of its form, because of its function, because of its complexity. And at the same time, because it’s out of any field and out of any intellectual constraint. It’s not high-tech, it’s not low-tech, it’s whatever tech you like.

Such a building is both the building of your life and killing you. Because you spend so much time doing it, you involve yourself so much, but you neglect a lot of things around it. And when you finish, you’re deep in the baby blues.

Q: And it’s not an airport.

A: No, it’s not. I was fed up with airports a bit. I couldn’t express myself through them as I wanted to. I didn’t want to die as a specialist in anything.

Q: How do you ensure that your contemporary buildings in Beijing will fit in with their surroundings?

A: I just try to keep an attitude of respect. For example, I insisted that the Opera House should respect the main lines, the main axes of Beijing. At a certain moment, the people in charge of the competition asked us to push it down and not really respect the organization of the city. But I said no. For me, it would have been impossible.

Q: How do these tensions emerge in newer cities like Abu Dhabi, where you built an airport?

A: I’m a little uneasy in those countries now. How can they believe that every building can be an icon? Even a little office building of 30,000 square meters, they want to be an icon. But when everything’s an icon, there are no icons, and there is no architecture. So, it was a real challenge for me to find continuity while building in Abu Dhabi. I decided to make that airport with a rather modern form — a doughnut resting on a pillar — and to use tiles. And I made a rather closed building, which didn’t please the young minister, who said, “Why not glass, glass, glass?” I said, “Well, it’s rather hot here,” and he said, “We have air conditioning.”

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