Nicholas Mayes

Why Bombay airport is the greatest 21st century building – and what we can learn from it

‘If I had to say which was telling the truth about society, a speech by a minister of housing or the actual buildings put up in his time, I should believe the buildings.’

So said Kenneth Clark in his unsurpassed Civilisation. I haven’t listened to any speeches by India’s or Maharashtra state’s ministers of housing, but I hope the new terminal at Bombay’s international airport is telling the truth about their country. Opened in February, it is a triumph: not just the greatest airport building in the world, but a strong contender for the greatest of all buildings of the 21st century so far.

I’ve done quite a bit of travelling in the past few months, and have been inside my share of airports. At London City – which, given the price of any flight in or out, is supposed to be a treat – I found myself asking whether it was necessary for my surroundings to consist so exclusively of flat, grey plastic and metal. The floor, the furniture, the security scanners: all of them seemed as dull as the overcast sky towards which the planes were understandably buggering off. Had the Byzantine building codes of successive governments brought us to this point, where only the most boring blueprints could get past the planners?

What an unexpected delight, then, to get to the last leg of my trip and fly off from Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport’s Terminal 2. The last time I was in Bombay, ten years ago, the international terminal was ugly, slow, inefficient: none of this is true now.

Its columns fanning out to the roof like the tail of a peacock, the check-in hall feels like a grand pavilion from one of the last durbars. Shunning the sickly strip lights that blight so much of urban India, the departure lounges’ lanterns give off a cosy glow, while the dark wooden walls are adorned with lotuses, lattices and all sorts of nods to traditional Indian design features.

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