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Tragedy puts avant-garde architect in limelight
(Shenzhen Daily)
Updated: 2004-05-28 09:27

The vaulted roof of the new, showcase terminal at Paris' Charles de Gaulle International Airport -- touted as a jewel of design, safety and comfort -- collapsed Sunday in France, killing at least five people.

Paul Andreu, the chief designer of the National Theater, poses for a photo at the construction site of the somewhat controversial "egg shell." [newsphoto/file]
Paul Andreu, the French architect who designed terminal 2E at the Charles de Gaulle airport, flew back to Paris on Tuesday to help with the investigation in the tragedy.

There is no suggestion that Andreu is under suspicion for the fatal collapse. It is, after all, the civil engineers who are responsible for making the construction of his designs work. However the apparent structural failure of the terminal's strikingly unconventional design is likely to stir debate about how far architects can push new materials and construction theories in the pursuit of beauty without endangering lives.

Paul Andreu, already a world-famous architect, is again pushed to the limelight for his bold design.

Andreu, one of the world's leading experts in airport design, has always been hailed for the exceptional engineering which allows his bold ideas to come to life.

In 2001, he was honored by the British Institute of Structural Engineers for his work on a maritime museum in Osaka, Japan, and highly commended by the same organization in 1997 for terminal 2E at Charles de Gaulle. In 1981, the American magazine Engineering News hailed him "Construction's Man of the Year."

Andreu, 65, has a special passion for airports. He has worked on more than 40 such airport projects worldwide, including Shanghai, Cairo, Bangkok, Osaka and Dubai.

The renown architect specializes in a light, airy style of architecture and uses modern materials such as glass, steel and concrete. Terminal 2E, which cost 750 million euros (US$900 million), was typical of his designs, consisting of two long, sleek curving halls linked by a central passageway.

The design is very French - and also very fashionable. A number of the new Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV) rail stations have also been built in a very similar style.

It is not the first time Andreu's projects have caused a stir among locals.

When work was completed on terminal 1 of the Charles De Gaulle airport in 1974, eyebrows were raised at its modern design. The work came from a team that included interior designers, color specialists, musicians and a philosopher.

But it did go some way towards establishing Paris as one of Europe's leading hubs.

Andreu went on to design the rest of the airport. His design for terminal 2E has been described as one of his boldest yet.

The terminal was built using innovative technology to accommodate the Parisian airport authority's requirement that the 640-meter-long, 33-meter-wide

terminal should not have any intermediate, interior supports that would restrict the flow of passengers to and from the gates. To solve the problem chief architect Andreu used technology developed for the construction of tunnels.

It was "a significant first, not without numerous difficulties, not least being the open-air construction of the concrete shells," noted a 2002 news release from the French Technology Press Bureau.

Describing the concrete, glass and metal structure, which opened in 2003, Andreu said it might have been "bold," but was "nothing revolutionary" in architecture terms.

In the preface to a book on airport design, Airport Builders by Marcus Binney, Andreu says that from an architectural point of view, the 1990s may come to be seen as "the age of the air terminal," as other eras were seen as the age of the railway station or the age of the cathedral.

Andreu does not limit himself in designing airports. He also designed the French terminal of the Channel Tunnel. His other projects include a football stadium in southern China's Guangzhou and the Maritime Museum in Osaka, Japan -- a futuristic steel dome built on reclaimed land and accessed through a submerged tunnel. His latest work is China's National Theater in Beijing, which boasts an enormous glass and titanium tear-drop-like bubble surrounded by water.

The National Theater, which is scheduled to be completed in 2005, is more than 149,500 square meters in area and comprises three halls, including a 2,416-seat opera house, a 2,017-seat concert hall and a 1,040-capacity theater.

Known as the "egg-shell," the US$320m glass and titanium building, set in an artificial lake, has been the source of much discussion in Beijing due to its eye-catching design.

Many residents believe it does not fit in with surrounding structures in Tiananmen Square, but others have hailed the design as a showcase for modern China, as Beijing prepares to host the Olympics in 2008.

Shocked by the sudden collapse of the Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, Andreu was confident in his design and said he did not think he made any mistakes.

"I don't think I'm at fault, I don't think I made any mistakes," Paul Andreu said in an interview on France's private television TF1.

He said every rule and regulation was adhered to during building and that the techniques were complicated but tried and tested. "There are many checks on a building of this type ... if there had been any mistakes it wasn't because of carelessness," he said.

A technical investigation is underway into the causes of the accident and French President Chirac has announced a judicial inquiry to examine the possibility of involuntary manslaughter. The Chinese side, however, has given the troubled architect a vote of confidence by saying that his job at the landmark theater in Beijing was safe.

"We have confidence in Paul Andreu," Wang Zhengming, a spokesman of the theater project told media, adding that work was progressing as normal.

"The accident (in Paris) will have no effect on our building work which will continue as normal."

Wang stressed that all the necessary safety measures were being followed at the National Grand Theater.

"At the beginning of the design of the theater, we placed safety at the forefront of our plans and we have taken all the necessary measures, including the choice of the materials," he said.

Architects in Shanghai, where Andreu's works -- the Pudong Airport and Oriental Art Center -- stand, also expressed their confidence in the safety of the architectures. Similar to the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, the two architectures feature grand roofs.

"The construction structure and technique used in Charles de Gaulle airport is completely different from that in Pudong Airport," said Zhang Fuling, the chief engineer in the Puodng Airport. The roof of the terminal in the Charles de Gaulle airport was built with concrete, while the roof and outer walls in the Pudong Airport were a steel structure, which is lighter, Zhang said.

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