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The new $3.6-billion Terminal 1 at Toronto Pearson International Airport is so expensive it makes the downtown redevelopments in Montreal and Toronto seem like child's play. Let's imagine that it makes sense to double the airport's capacity, from 25 million to 50 million passengers, in the next decade. Let's pretend that the hobbled airlines and disgruntled passengers are delighted to pay for what is now ranked as one of the world's most expensive airports.

Architecture -- scintillating and innovative -- might have worked as a panacea to help lessen the financial burden deposited by the Greater Toronto Airports Authority. But, with the airport design led by Moshe Safdie of Boston and David Childs of New York's Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), don't expect a complete recovery. Travellers can expect some exhilarating moments in architecture and some grey skies. The most pleasurable jolts come from the brilliant graphics and the heavy injection of invigorating public art.

An airport is a place where people get on and off planes. And yet it has become a shopping mall, or a place designed to look as if you might just get off the people mover and shoot some white-water rapids. It is clearly a place that wants, badly, to stretch your imagination. In Vancouver, water gushes down a wall of rock, which looks trivial next to the Starbucks kiosk. Isn't it in Calgary where older people in vests and Stetsons greet you at the bottom of the elevator? So, now I want to be a cowgirl.

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The problem with airports is that we're already exhausted when we arrive there. Not just because the day started at 5 a.m. in order to make a 7:30 a.m. flight. It takes time to recover from the accumulated anxiety of travelling: the endless cattle lines and the humiliation of having to haul off your boots to please the security guards. Forget the food on the planes -- after what we suffer on the ground, a spoonful of warm gruel seems perfectly generous.

The new Terminal 1 helps us to forget our travel woes. Go there to see the democratic spread of natural light, the way that it manages to infiltrate most of the building's 390,000 square metres. Don't expect endless corridors to trudge along; the building's depth or section has received some careful attention from the architects so that travellers can visually connect parts of the airport long before they arrive there.

So laborious has become the experience of travel that we no longer expect to find in it moments of pleasure. But at the new Toronto terminal there are delights to be had: the way a glass bridge spans the baggage area; the way that a curved wall of solid pink granite from northern Quebec alludes discreetly to the Canadian Shield without hitting you over the head with boulders and crevasses; the way that you can stand at one of the departure piers and see the wings of the planes several hundred metres away. When travellers emerge after collecting their baggage, they find themselves on the upper section of a ramp so that they can easily view the crowd -- and a familiar face -- before descending. For these gestures, the architects and the GTAA deserve credit for returning some of the drama and anticipation back to air travel.

Mesmerizing, too, is the way that the roof is both arched and curved to follow the massive length of the terminal. But the architecture lacks warmth and difference in its materiality. Even with long glass slits appearing at regular intervals above the departures concourse, the intended elegance of the arched ceiling is sabotaged by its cladding of shiny white metal panels. There is real stone on the floors but it is salt and pepper speckled. Thin members of wood might have been used on the undulating canopy that hover next to the main street of shops and cafés in one of the domestic departure piers. The steel canopy makes the street scene look clinical. The carpets are grey, the drywall is painted grey or some subtle variation around that lifeless corporate palette.

Leave it to the people, says Safdie, to splash around their own colour. And they do. The many languages spoken at the Toronto terminal add another texture to the space. But try as they might, the people are no match for the overwhelming sea of grey that has been washed up and over them.

Safdie says he finds the pink-red colour used in part of the interior of Kansai International Airport in Osaka Bay near Kobe, Japan, to be offensive. But out there among the floating containers of the port with the mountains in the background, Kansai is as striking as its surroundings. Toronto's new terminal lacks for scenery -- but that's no excuse for giving in to dull.

What tips the balance back to refreshingly funky is the way-finding signage. Designed over the last five years out of the New York offices of Pentagram, a multidisciplinary firm, the signage is simultaneously restrained and in your face. Restrained because, as chief project designer Michael Gericke explains, the number of signs has been reduced by almost 40 per cent compared to other airports such as La Guardia. The graphics in the new Toronto terminal use three basic colours -- green, yellow and orange -- to put information into simple categories. If you're heading out of the airport, for instance, you'll always follow the green way finders. Working with Entro Communications of Toronto, Pentagram used back-lit dots punched out of aluminum panels at a large scale to indicate with numbers the different baggage carousels. The GTAA client had a problem with the dots -- perhaps because they look like a font on 1960s acid. But Pentagram, with the backing of Safdie and Childs, prevailed -- it's an aesthetic triumph that distinguishes the Toronto terminal from the rest.

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Many who have lost faith in the power of public art will find themselves happily restored at the new terminal. Safdie and SOM principal Marilyn Taylor devoted hundreds of hours of personal time to making sure that the public art was exactly right for the building. Two highlights: on the departures level, the small plastic cubes gurgling around in blue water all of which is captured by German artist Ingo Maurer in a massive glass case. And in the baggage concourse for international arrivals the sexy red wall by Jaume Plensa of Barcelona; the long length of red glass panels sits below an enormous banner of what appears to be a jumble of letters. At unpredictable intervals, the letters -- rendered in neon tubing -- light up to illuminate the names of five continents.

New airport terminals are beginning to suffer from a pack mentality. It doesn't matter if the gateway is located in Hong Kong or Kansai or Toronto, they share a common language -- a sameness in the way that steel and glass are exploited to create light-filled, transparent spaces. The new Terminal 1 in Toronto belongs to a family of spectacular steel truss roof systems and big curtain walls -- a lean, light diet the world has been fed since Norman Foster's steel and glass Stansted Airport opened in 1991. In 1994, at Kansai Airport Terminal, architect Renzo Piano produced an undulating structure that runs 1.7 kilometres long. Four years later, on two reclaimed islands off the coast of Hong Kong, Norman Foster produced a 1.2 km. building using a seamless, high-tech system of barrel vaults to support one of the largest interior spaces in the world.

David Childs and Moshe Safdie got to know each other while working on separate terminals for the nearly completed Ben Gurion Airport in Israel. You'll recall that Childs is the architect of the so called Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center that is designed to use wind turbines to generate much of its energy. But there are no environmental innovations on offer at Terminal 1. The airport wears a structural dress that is urbane and chic but the building is, undeniably, a suburban beast. The first Terminal 1, originally designed by John B. Parkin Assoc. as a sublime modern box was diminutive in comparison and measured 56,180 square metres in 1986 when it was renamed the Lester B. Pearson International Airport. Compare that to the dimensions of the current new Terminal 1, which has consumed 390,000 square metres of space. It epitomizes the first principles of suburbia -- a big house with lots of parking.

The new terminal is dwarfed by its behemoth parking structure. There are more than 12,000 parking spaces -- the GTAA trumpets that this is the largest indoor parking facility in all of North America. The parking, designed by Scott Assoc., is without structural sheer walls and is relatively open and pleasant as a result. Who cares if two separate air associations have once again voted Hong Kong as the top-ranked airport in the world? It only has 4,000 spots to park -- something that ranks in suburban Toronto as a pox on their house.

lrochon@globeandmail.ca

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