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May 01, 2006

CDG Terminal 1: Futuristic Gone Sour

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

March, 1974. It was the airport of the future ... today!!

Passengers whisked from level to level on moving walkways enclosed within plastic tubes.

Underground moving walkways from the central terminal building to seven satellites.

The multi-purpose central building with shops, parking, rental cars, check-in counters, luggage pick-up -- everything under one roof save the gates in the satellites.

Pride of the nation: its gateway. Symbol of its technical prowess. Its design embodying la logique and l'égalité.

I'm talking about the original terminal (Terminal 1) at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport (CDG).

I hate it.


First, some links. The Wikipedia entry on the airport is here and its entry on its architect, Paul Andreu, is here. A PDF link with diagrams of what's on various floors of the terminal is here. Another PDF link, here, contains background information written by a Frenchman (Jean-François Onnée) in a term paper for an MIT class; I used it as the source for information on the intent of the airport planners.

Paris' first airport was Le Bourget, northeast of the city not far beyond the Périphérique (beltway). It's best known to Americans as the place Lindbergh landed at the end of his famous 1927 New York-to-Paris flight. It still handles traffic including business jets and is where the national air/space museum is located.

After the Second World War, the airfield at Orly, south of the city, became the main airport for Paris. But the advent of jet travel and rapidly-increasing numbers of passengers produced trends indicating that yet another airport was needed. The planning requirements of limited distance from central Paris, sparse population and the availability of, or potential for, ground transportation links to the city pretty much determined that the new airport would be located at Roissy. Roissy is roughly on the same axis from central Paris as Le Bourget. Planning for the new airport and design of the terminal were carried out in the early 60s. Construction began in 1966 and the airport opened 8 March 1974.

(Air traffic continued to expand to the point where yet another airport was considered. The proposed site was near Amiens, north-northwest of Paris. The most obvious disadvantage of this site is its distance from Paris, a seriously long commute unless a special TGV high-speed train line were built. In any event, a change in the French presidency brought a halt to the scheme.)

The MIT article goes into details of the planning of the initial terminal. Alternative schemes were evaluated, and the one chosen (1) concentrated support facilities and (2) "equalized" walking distances for passengers, especially those making flight connections.

As can be seen in the linked diagram, the centralization concept forced the terminal to be tall -- the functional areas being stacked rather than spread out as in most air terminals.

The main public areas are in the form of stacked rings resulting in a doughnut-shaped structure. The tube-enclosed moving walkways within the structure send passengers between levels (elevators are also available). These tubes were distinctive and futuristic-seeming when new, and were a common subject of illustrations found in news reports when the airport opened.


Below are some views of Charles de Gaulle's Terminal 1. Many of the pictures are from readily-downloadable files found on the Web site.

Terminal 1 exterior wide-angle new.jpg
Terminal 1 when new.
Airplane gates are in the satellites surrounding the main building.

Vertical view.jpg
Vertical view
The satallites show up more clearly here.

Looking down into core.jpg
Looking down into "hole of the doughnut."
The thicker lines in the hole are the moving walkway tubes.

Terminal 1 interior - 2.jpg
View across Terminal 1 "hole."

Terminal 1 interior - 1.jpg
Interor, closer view of tubes.

Tube interior - 1.jpg
Inside of moving walkway tube.

Terminal 1 interior - 3.jpg
You have to work your way around the circular hall to get where you want to go. But sometimes you aren't sure which direction to go. Plus, you can lose track of where you are.


Onnée points out that the terminal failed to meet its objectives. One problem was that it could not easily be expanded. When the second round of terminal construction was needed, the Terminal 1 concept was abandoned for the conventional linear layout.

Another problem was that the layout of Terminal 1 proved to be confusing for passengers. This introduced inefficiencies when using the terminal, as I can attest. Terminal 1 has been under renovation and it will be interesting to see how much it has been improved.

One reason for selecting the compact, walk-equalizing concept had to do with plane-changing (long walks from gate to gate were judged to be a defect in linear terminals). As it happens, Air France is the only airline using CGD that offers flight-changing there. And when Terminal 2 began opening, Air France decamped from Terminal 1. This eliminated one major justification for the Terminal 1 layout.

I can report that I was occasionally confused when using Terminal 1; moreso than in most other terminals, and my airport tally is around 60. It has been enough years since I arrived and departed from there (I usually use Terminal 2) that I forget most of the confusion details. I recall that the circular layout meant that I did a lot of walking, especially when groping around for the Northwest Airlines check-in desk or the elevators for the rental car park. (It wasn't a language problem. I think all international airports have to have English signage, and in any case I can read French tolerably well.)

So, instead of the next step toward the future of air travel, CDG's Terminal 1 proved to be a flashy mistake.

Do any of you disagree?



posted by Donald at May 1, 2006


Hard to say. I just came through CDG - Northwest terminal - last Thursday and the amount of construction made it impossible to say what was where with any certainty. I know they didn't pull planes up to the building at Concourse E, they loaded everyone into busses and then drove them to the planes - maybe 500 feet!
That said, it seemed manageable. I was amazed that the passport control when we came in consisted of a glance at the photo, a shrug and a "Merci". Not what I expected these days.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on May 1, 2006 9:57 AM

For sheer ugliness, try the Atlanta airport. Not only that, but the floor of the main lobby is paved with tile. The sound of rolling carts and luggage as they bump along is deafening. How bright was that? Modern "architects" are mostly clueless.

I wish I could make a comment on de Gaulle, but I can't recall flying into there. From the photos it looks like one of those Jacque Tati parodies of modern life.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on May 1, 2006 11:00 AM

Gosh...the airport really is some kind of futuristic nightmare, isn't it? Straight out of "Bladerunner" or "End of Days." Or maybe the set designers for those movies just visited the CDG airport for, uh, "inspiration." It's wierd--so not what you would expect from beautiful Paris.

Posted by: annette on May 1, 2006 11:00 AM

So that's why I found CDG so confusing. It was many years ago, and I've only been through once. But to say that it wasn't intuitively graspable is to understate matters by a ton. Seems like another "looks good in theory" boondoggle, or maybe like one of those "systems" that engineers, bureaucrats and politicians seem so prone to talking themselves into. Meanwhile, the rest of us wander around bewildered, feeling like we're lost in somebody else's flow chart. I like Annette's idea that maybe it was inspiration for works like "Blade Runner" (which in turn has become the inspiration for many other works). I wonder what the sequence of events is in cases like this, or whether it's just something we're all picking up in the air generally. The thing that always amazes me is the way that stuff that initially strikes many people as a nightmare (the Blade Runner esque city, for instance) then goes on to look glamorous to later people. If not, then why do so many new buildings and developments look so very Darth Vader and Blade Runner? They were nightmares, folks: we were meant to avoid that kind of thing!

I love these discussions of airports. No one really seems to have solved the how-to-make-a-humane-airport dilemma, at least once they get past a very small size. One of my heroes, Leon Krier, argues that, while most building types (churches, town halls, etc) eventually settle into a kind of expected form (we know what a church looks like, or a gas station), airports have never yet settled down into a standard thing, or at least a standard thing that is comprehensible to the rest of us. (Who knows what an airport really looks like as a building?) If I remember right, he argues that this is partly because they're always being addressed entirely from an engineering-and-politics point of view, without taking any other values (except maybe a little glitz and chic) into account. Sounds about right to me.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 1, 2006 11:57 AM

Oh, and another good point you're raising: What's the diff between a system that is an open and flexible one (given that all airports eventually seem to need modifying), and a system that may have its brilliance but that is a locked-down, closed system -- you're either with the program or you aren't? I suspect that people with engineering and math backgrounds could tell me a lot about this. I suspect that probably should tell the French government a thing or two about it as well.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 1, 2006 11:59 AM

Ryanair, which is basically the European version of Southwest Airlines, flies to Beauvais airport a _long_ way from Paris yet nevertheless advertises it as "Paris."

Posted by: Peter on May 1, 2006 12:36 PM

Donald and Michael,

Agree. CDG 1 is the product of a time -- maybe the last time -- that worshipped "futurism." It was designed to look like a science-fiction comic book version of an airport terminal, and the result is much like one of those concrete-horror, Bauhaus-influenced apartment buildings that is so utterly rational and functional that nobody wants to live in it, and quickly becomes a slum.

It's only fair to add, though, that almost all airport terminals are gee-whiz cool when they're designed and for about a week after they open for business; then harsh reality sets in.

Airport buildings have almost unique problems. Unlike most buildings, they are in heavy use for 20 hours a day; foot and airplane traffic increases year after year and the building must be redesigned to accommodate the flow, as well as new aircraft types. Reconfiguration also includes adding features such as automated check-in kiosks, plus stores and restaurants as airports become privately owned and run-for-profit enterprises.

Airports are ugly and inhuman because they are designed on a false premise: that their function requires them to be the latest in high-tech trendiness. Nothing dates more quickly. In the great age of railroads, when cultural norms were wiser than ours, no one saw anything odd about the original Penn Station replicating classical Roman elements. I can vaguely remember the old Penn Station -- it was an uplifting experience. The Beaux Arts Grand Central Terminal is worth visiting even if you're not there to catch a train.

It is possible to create a traditionalist airport: Albuquerque's, which incorporates southwestern pueblo-style design, is an example. Maybe if airport authorities could get over the idea that people want to wait and transit in a metal-and-glass, surgical-operating-room type space, and ask their architects to think vernacular and warmth, it would help put some pleasure back in air travel. Surely it's worth a try. Otherwise, we're doomed to yet more iterations of terminals that are anywhere and nowhere.

Posted by: Rick Darby on May 1, 2006 1:32 PM

Ha, you want depressing Futuristic hive-transit? Try the DC-area Metro. It's like what you're describing, but concretier rather than sleeker, and darker rather than brighter.

Posted by: Agnostic on May 1, 2006 2:00 PM

Charlton Griffin: The architects of Oklahoma City's newly re-modeled airport also chose tile floors. The irritating clattering never stops. How could they not be aware of this problem? Do they have a deal with companies who make replacement wheels for luggage?

Posted by: Bill on May 1, 2006 2:29 PM

I'm in total agreeement. Flew through CDG this summer, and with 2 hours between connecting flights, I thought we had more than enough time to get from one terminal to another. Barely made the connecting flight and luggage appeared 2 days later. Give me ugly, simple, & efficient any day. I'm there to catch a plane, not have some artistic relaization of my place in the universe.

Posted by: DarkoV on May 1, 2006 3:20 PM

Bill and Charlton:
you can't be sued for clattering on the tile floors, but you sure can (and will) if your floor material isn't adhere to slippyness/high traffic/cleanability standards.

[insert rant] And hard-surface baked or porcelaine tile is the best for a budget. That budget shaffling could be used to invest ion better surface materials and not in "architectural wonders", rarely occur to architects. Why, most of them still think interior designer is not a legitimate profession!
[end of rant]

Posted by: Tatyana on May 1, 2006 4:35 PM

Robert -- Years ago the French would stamp your passport on entry. But the last few times I've entered from outside the EU they haven't. I suppose this must be what Brussels wants, but it always vaguely bothers me -- I worry that my entry to the EU was unofficial.

Charlton -- Living towards the opposite corner of the country, I seldom have flown into Altanta. The only time in the new terminal was for a plane-change many years ago and I can't remember if they'd gotten the clatter operatonal at that time. But I did hear such clatter within the last year ot two, and I can't remember where. Suspects include Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque and Honolulu. I'll be on the alert now.

Annette -- The Centre Pompidou (modern art museum) is not what one expects of Paris either.

Michael -- The observation by Leon Krier is fascinating. I must look into that. (A pet hobbyhorse of mine is the time it takes for objects to attain an ultimate general form; see my blog on airliners a while back.)

As for expansion, apparently they once considered plopping a whole bunch of Terminal 1 type buildings along the runways (see the MIT paper link for a diagram). So that was expansion by replication, not extension. But the Terminal 1 concept could not be extended without rebuiling the runways and taxiways.

Peter -- And Beauvais is nearer to Paris than Amiens.

Rick -- Yes it is kinda amazing how rapidly terminals age, isn't it? Something genetic, doubtless.

Agnostic -- The DC Metro transfer stations are vaguely underground versions of parts of CDG's Terminal 2 (vaulting, etc.). Well, that's a gut-reaction.

Darko -- And at London Heathrow a couple years ago it took us well over an hour to process though en route to the States. That was in an ugly terminal. The CGD situation will (in theory) improve when they (eventually) open a people-mover system.

Tatyana -- I wonder just who designs the interior details. The architects themsleves? (Thinking thoughts of barely-usable Frank Lloyd Wright chairs.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 1, 2006 8:41 PM

I remember that we've discussed airport design before, but I'm not sure if we discussed GOOD airport designs -- those that would be considered the best-designed of the very large / busy airports.

I haven't traveled that much, though, so I be interested in what airports people come up with.

When I was a tour manager, one experienced traveler from Tampa said that she throught her airport was extremely well thought-out and pleasant to use. (Maybe she'd think differently, however, if it was a transfer point instead of an embarcation / disembarcation point?)

A friend from L.A. thought LAX was efficiently laid out and pretty comfortable to use. (Again, he isn't using it as a transfer point, though.)

I've been to DFW and DFW seems to me to work well as either a transfer point or an embarcation / disembarcation point. Plus, it seems to have been designed well to accomodate future expansion (i.e., without making things too confusing for passengers).

(Once while waiting to change planes, though, I made the mistake of riding one of the tramways for the fun of it. Of course, the thing got stuck and when nobody would answer my emergency call, I opened the door, jumped on the track [concrete] and ran to the terminal to catch my plane!)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on May 1, 2006 9:13 PM

The DC Metro stations are inhuman-looking, but at least they're usable.

The system was built in the 1970s, when most Americans' image of a subway system was New York's, which in those days was practically a symbol of urban blight. I think the DC system (and the San Francisco area's BART, built around the same time in a very similar style) was basically conceived as an overreaction to New York, intended to be grand and antiseptic and graffiti-proof, and in DC there was some federal-city pomposity in the design too.

So the Metro stations became these colossal brutalist concrete caverns, most of them identical-looking so you couldn't even tell where you were without looking for the signs. I remember hearing that the architects initially didn't even want station IDs anywhere on the walls, limiting them only to sideways writing on those 2001-esque monoliths on the platforms.

But I grew up around there and I have this odd affection for the thing anyway.

Posted by: Matthew McIrvin on May 2, 2006 12:17 AM

I can't tell who designed the interiors for Terminal 1. Also, my experience of working for huge multi-national architectural company is limited to 1 year; having this disclaimer in mind, I can only draw from my own experience.
An architect on record's (the lead architects of the project) decisions supersede everybody working on the job (usually; it is a matter for specific contract articles); he's the one deciding the concept (which is then sold to the client) and, later, if concept meets client's approval, a budget designation.
So even if the architect has interior designers working on FF&E, they are given a starting figure of a budget and conceptual guidelines. (It means that designer is given, f.ex., the slot in finishes' schedule for a floor material of $6-7/sq.ft, which must comply with various codes and regulations, as well as design concept) In the development phase these 2 factors change constantly, and more often than not, in the direction of getting worse/less.

In other words, the lead architect is the tzar. And there are kind tzars and despotic ones...

Posted by: Tat on May 2, 2006 12:22 AM

...As for airports, these complaints about CDG remind me of Washington Dulles, near my old home in northern Virginia. The main terminal is this swooshy Saarinen design that is lovely from a distance (recently extended to twice its previous length). But it was originally conceived as having no jetways: passengers would ride to their planes in "mobile lounges", basically giant super-wide buses with the ability to jack themselves up and down to different heights to dock with the planes. It was all extremely Captain Scarlet.

In practice, they'd corral you in there early to get you out of the terminal, and you'd end up penned in the mobile lounges for what seemed like an eternity, sweating profusely because the air conditioning in there was often inadequate.

Eventually they started building long boxcar-shaped satellite terminals out in the field, which had normal jetways, and the mobile lounges were mostly relegated to regular shuttle service to the other terminals. Now, they've even got underground walkways going to some of them, and the experience is much more like a traditional airport.

Posted by: Matthew McIrvin on May 2, 2006 12:29 AM

Matthew -- Underground walkways at Dulles? Yippeee!! I hated those "lounges." Besides the discomfort you mentioned, they added a significant amount of time to the deplaning process (and this for even the comparatively small old 707s I'd sometimes fly on back in the 70s). I last flew into Dulles in early 2001 when I had to do some pre-release checking of data from the 2000 Census and was thrilled that the lounge situation had been at least partly remedied.

No wonder I get increasingly disenchanted with Theoreticians as I experience more and more of their screwups.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 2, 2006 12:53 PM

CDG - worst airport in a '1st World' nation ?

Certainly the worst I've experienced. Especially when the ground staff are on strike - a less than rare occurrence.

Posted by: nigel on May 2, 2006 2:15 PM

OMG CDG Terminal 1 is the worst architectural monstrosity in the whole world. Those tubes are completely pointless. It's like you're transported directly into an Orwellian nightmare. Monolithic concrete structures make me feel like I'm looking at death.

Posted by: Paul N on May 2, 2006 11:24 PM

I've always liked CDG terminal 1 -- the fact that it deliberately attempts to invoke a futuristic feeling is bold and interesting. Anyway, it's far, far better than a number of other major airports -- the numbing blandness of SFO, the cramped, dingy, run-down quarters of LGA, or the disaster that is Narita...

Posted by: Frankenstein on May 5, 2006 12:28 PM

CDG Terminal 2 is a horror show in slow motion. Takes 45 minutes to transfer from A to F whether you walk or take the bus. People-mover system crashed and burned.

Oslo's airport has a humane design. Wood roof. Sweet.

Other than that, yeah, every airport I've ever been in has sucked. Perhaps if the architect designed the building for change, but that would require acknowledging that his design is not the be-all and end-all.

Posted by: Russell Nelson on May 29, 2006 1:42 PM

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