Home >> Build It Bigger, Season 5, Episode 7: Mumbai Airport

Build It Bigger, Season 5, Episode 7: Mumbai Airport

by Danny Forster on Apr 30, 2011

Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Mumbai
Episode 7 season 5
The Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai is hopping. But the busiest airport in fast-growing India, it is also the most delayed airport in the world. It ushered through 17 million passengers a few years ago, 20 million the next, 24 million the next.. And having made two separate trips to Mumbai to shoot this episode, I can tell you firsthand: it′s an unmitigated madhouse. The chaos begins the moment the plane touches down, with an abnormally long delay to get the airplane to a gate. Once off the plane, the sheer volume of people fighting their way through immigration and baggage claim is mind-bending. Abandon hope of personal space, all who enter here! (For added fun, try elbowing through the crowds while trying to get high-definition television camera equipment though customs.) The airport is so insanely busy it has to be expanded.

But the airport is so insanely busy, how can it possibly be expanded?

That′s the challenge facing construction crews here as they build a brand new international terminal and renovate the domestic one on the original footprint—while 400 flights a day come and go. One engineer compared the whole endeavor to doing open-heart surgery in the middle of a marathon.

Even that doesn′t do justice to the challenges here. India has the highest population of first-time flyers in the world, travelling for education and for work. And in India, a first-time flyer typically has his whole family accompany him to the airport to see him off. And I′m not talking Mom, Dad, and Sis. I′m talking about 37 of his nearest and dearest (affectionately referred to as "weepers and wailers"). Throngs of people. Which means traffic flow in and around the airport has to be negotiated with even greater care.

Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill—SOM—the lead architects, have designed a terminal that accommodates this tradition. But their sensitivity to place and culture doesn′t end there. First, and most incredibly, they built this multi-billion-dollar project around a revered statue of 17th century king Shivaji, after whom the airport is named, to leave access for worshippers. Throughout the terminal, they have incorporated art from different parts of India, unified by the recurring ocellus pattern of a peacock, India′s national bird. That pattern adds lightness and delicacy to an enormous roofscape.

Airports, are, if you take a step back, really just massive roofs under which people and luggage move. In this case, lots of people. SOM used that basic structural fact—airport=huge roof surface—and turned it in to a central theme. The roof rests on mega columns that branch out like trees. They are both decorative and functional: they drain the rainwater, let in a dappling of daylight light, hold up the entire structure and are just plain beautiful. Extremely high-tech, extremely functional, but aesthestically linked to the history and culture of India.

But let′s go up above the roof for an aerial view of this project. Now the heart transplant in the middle of the marathon looks like the easy part. Because the airport is surrounded by slums—in fact, 300,000 people live in slums on airport property. Along with the building of the terminal (and the ongoing operation of this airport) will be the largest slum resettlement project in India′s history. They have resettled 1,000 people; they are planning to resettle 85,000 . . . in a city that′s already unbelievably crowded and comically congested. Mumbai has a population of 20 million, densely packed. It can take five hours to travel the 15 miles from the city center to the airport. Which reminds me: there′s a highway being built as part of this project too.

The Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai is hopping. But the busiest airport in fast-growing India, it is also the most delayed airport in the world. It ushered through 17 million passengers a few years ago, 20 million the next, 24 million the next.. And having made two separate trips to Mumbai to shoot this episode, I can tell you firsthand: it′s an unmitigated madhouse. The chaos begins the moment the plane touches down, with an abnormally long delay to get the airplane to a gate. Once off the plane, the sheer volume of people fighting their way through immigration and baggage claim is mind-bending. Abandon hope of personal space, all who enter here! (For added fun, try elbowing through the crowds while trying to get high-definition television camera equipment though customs.) The airport is so insanely busy it has to be expanded. But the airport is so insanely busy, how can it possibly be expanded? That′s the challenge facing construction crews here as they build a brand new international terminal and renovate the domestic one on the original footprint—while 600 flights a day come and go. One engineer compared the whole endeavor to doing open-heart surgery in the middle of a marathon. Even that doesn′t do justice to the challenges here. India has the highest population of first-time flyers in the world, travelling for education and for work. And in India, a first-time flyer typically has his whole family accompany him to the airport to see him off. And I′m not talking Mom, Dad, and Sis. I′m talking about 37 of his nearest and dearest (affectionately referred to as "weepers and wailers"). Throngs of people. Which means traffic flow in and around the airport has to be negotiated with even greater care. Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill—SOM—the lead architects, have designed a terminal that accommodates this tradition. But their sensitivity to place and culture doesn′t end there. First, and most incredibly, they built this multi-billion-dollar project around a revered statue of 17th century king Shivaji, after whom the airport is named, to leave access for worshippers. Throughout the terminal, they have incorporated art from different parts of India, unified by the recurring ocellus pattern of a peacock, India′s national bird. That pattern adds lightness and delicacy to an enormous roofscape. Airports, are, if you take a step back, really just massive roofs under which people and luggage move. In this case, lots of people. SOM used that basic structural fact—airport=huge roof surface—and turned it in to a central theme. The roof rests on mega columns that branch out like trees. They are both decorative and functional: they drain the rainwater, let in a dappling of daylight light, hold up the entire structure and are just plain beautiful. Extremely high-tech, extremely functional, but aesthestically linked to the history and culture of India. But let′s go up above the roof for an aerial view of this project. Now the heart transplant in the middle of the marathon looks like the easy part. Because the airport is surrounded by slums—in fact, 300,000 people live in slums on airport property. Along with the building of the terminal (and the ongoing operation of this airport) will be the largest slum resettlement project in India′s history. They have resettled 1,000 people; they are planning to resettle 85,000 . . . in a city that′s already unbelievably crowded and comically congested. Mumbai has a population of 20 million, densely packed. It can take five hours to travel the 15 miles from the city center to the airport. Which reminds me: there′s a highway being built as part of this project too. When it′s all done in 2014, the expanded airport will be an oasis of calm and of careful planning, accommodating 45 million travelers a year. You math types are thinking, "at the rate I mentioned above, they′ll have outgrown the new space by then, right?" Yeah, that′s why they′re building another international airport, Navi Mumbai, about twenty miles away. Can you say, "fast-growing economy"?
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