When Kai Tak Airport was operational, the hair-raising highlight of a trip to Hong Kong was often the arrival. A test of mettle for pilots and passengers alike, Kai Tak was a sliver of space narrowly tucked in between the skyscrapers and housing projects of one of the world's most densely populated urban areas. The airport itself, never more than drably functional, was distinctly overshadowed by the navigational feats involved in landing there.

With a transfer of leadership to China scheduled for 1997, British and Hong Kong authorities decided in 1989 to construct a brand-new airport that would commemorate the achievements of the past and serve as a beacon toward the future. Thus began one of the most grandiose public works projects in history, one with enough scope to fill an entire series of Arthur Hailey novels. With Hong Kong itself too small to contain 6 million sq. ft. (550,000 sq. m) of planned airport space, the project commenced with the leveling of the island of Chek Lap Kok, and the reclamation of much additional land from the seas off Lantau Island, 15 miles (25km) west of Hong Kong Island. Early last July, Kai Tak was shuttered, and within hours of its closing, Hong Kong International Airport was welcoming the first of what are expected to be 35 million passengers per year to the gateway to China.

The new terminal, shaped like a man with arms outstretched, spans a little over three-quarters of a mile and is another jewel in the (ex) Crown Colony for architect and designer Sir Norman Foster, best known for his magnificent Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank headquarters. Eschewing the static, institutional blandness of many terminals, his company, Foster and Partners, designed modules of architectural pieces that, once installed in the glass-enclosed building, unified the structure and create a sense of harmony with the airplanes, sea, and mountains--good feng shui, as the local geomancers might say. Hong Kong International Airport, with its sleekly modular design, open spaces for passengers to enjoy, and efficient integration of baggage handling, ground transportation, and other utilities (including what is said to be the world's largest air-conditioning system), evolves from concepts Foster's company developed for Britain's Stansted Airport, which opened in 1991.

One key design for Stansted used on a colossal scale at Hong Kong is barrel roof vaults. The roof of the new airport is made up of 128 lightweight steel lattice vault sections, each 120'x120' (36x36m), that run the length of the 45-acre (18 hectare) ceiling to cap the airport, which houses Departures, Arrivals, Baggage, and other areas all in one building, on different levels for ease of passenger use. The vaults end in large curtain walls; made of clear glass that afford spectacular views, they are supported every 10' (3m) by bowstring trusses. The swooping roof, which curves from north to south and east to west and suggests a jet poised for takeoff, was engineered by Ove Arup and Partners and is itself a marvel of flexibility and functionality.

The roof is the architectural highlight of the top-level Departures area, whose center is 73' (22m) high. Which is where New York-based architectural lighting firm Fisher Marantz Stone (FMS) makes its entrance. The modular airport design developed by the Mott Consortium (an umbrella organization of Foster and Partners, the engineering and project management team at Hong Kong-based Mott Connell Ltd., and the British Airport Authority) was given the go-ahead in early 1992. The fast-track project required a lighting design firm with "a breadth of experience, the willingness to go abroad, and the ability to speak metric," says FMS principal Charles G. Stone II, point man on a team that included Enrique Garcia and Scott Hershman.

FMS, which had lit several airport projects in the Northeast US, was engaged in work in Australia when it joined the flow of companies seeking airport-related assignments in Hong Kong. Its selection as project LD in 1992 has meant more than 65 round trips to date to the region for Stone, with more in the offing as the final phase of the terminal is finished this year. "More frequent flyer miles than I can count," he says, smiling, just a day before embarking on another Asian excursion earlier this spring.

Foster and Partners, Stone recalls, "knew quite a bit about uplighting from Stansted, but wanted to test some new ideas about it in Hong Kong. They both use a 36m square grid, but Stansted is supported by a center column, and Hong Kong is supported by columns at the four corners, which coincide with the low points of the vault. What we wanted to do was celebrate this new and much more extensive roof, and the exhilarating experience you get from it."

Extensive planning was required for this celebration. "There were very stringent documentation and drawing format requirements, so we actually had to do a fair amount of the work in Hong Kong," says Stone, adding that FMS prefers to keep its "brain trust" in Manhattan, rather than spread out over satellite offices. "At times we had three or four people in the Hong Kong design charettes. They had an office area set up for us in Hong Kong, and we would go over, sometimes for as long as two or three weeks at a time, to work on the project every day." The planning phase was intensive: A comprehensive "walk-through" of the airport drawings, by the time the Departures, Arrivals, Customs, and Baggage areas were discussed, took a full three days.

Stone recalls that in the last two years of the project, the work moved off paper to on-site, in temporary accommodations built at Chek Lap Kok. By this time, FMS had been invited by Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway Corp. (MTRC) to consult on the lighting for airport infrastructure and adjunct artistic projects (see "The flyways of Hong Kong," page 73). "There were more than 100 architects and engineers going out to the airport each day. They showed up promptly, in their coats and ties, to catch a ferry at 8:05am for an hour-long ride because there was at the time no other way to get there. We were already at work on the train line connecting Lantau to Hong Kong, but there were no trains to catch. Over time, the coats and ties were abandoned."

Other adjustments, more philosophical in nature, were made to the airport lighting scheme. "These mega-projects are hugely appealing to me, because you can imbue them, on a grand scale, with high ideals about how lighting should enhance the architecture," Stone says. "At the same time, there was a legion of bean counters in Hong Kong, as there is with every public works project, so much justification was required. Our designs had to be cost- and energy-efficient, not just good-looking."

What the LD calls the "wow" area of the Departures hall posed optical and technical problems. Daylight filters through triangular skylights that line the center of each vault; it is reflected back, glare-free, onto the ceiling from 2.5 miles (4km) of suspended gantries. At night, metal-halide fixtures chosen for their sunlight-like quality wash the walls; these are carried in each gantry, along with a catwalk for maintenance workers.

Stone says, "The essential challenge of lighting the vault is to put equal lumens on equal areas of the vault. The complexity arises because of the acute angle of attack. How do you design an optical reflector that achieves this? And workers have to clean the glass from the gantry, so the fittings had to be positioned so as not to impede maintenance." The fixture chosen also had to be able to withstand heat buildup at the top of the vault in summer, and be waterproof, as the vaults at the airport entrance extend beyond the glass line to the outside and are exposed to the elements. "We wanted one fixture--we didn't want to buy interior and exterior. We looked at an Australian company that made fixtures for mines, and companies in America and Britain, but none of them made a reflector shape that fit the bill."

FMS decided to custom design its own unit. It turned over the performance specifications to Mequon, WI-based SPI Lighting, which turned out 3,900 units, called the LUM 1001. Says Stone, "It's a fixture in a clamshell design that opens easily for relamping, with a precisely designed reflector system."

Lamping was another area that received considerable attention. "We ended up with a 400W metal-halide, because we felt that 1,000W is more problematic regarding color stability, lamp life, and heat properties. It is the more reliable combination with the fixture, but we had to defend it costwise--we could have used a smaller quantity of the 1,000W lamps. I think it was the right decision, because when you look at it there's a much better color consistency. We used a high-output tube lamp, made by Venture Lighting, which gives us better performance." The lamps made by the Solon, OH-based firm are divided into three circuits for energy-saving stepped switching.

The uplighting system, uniform and rigorously applied in every vault, is augmented by accents of illumination. "As in an office environment or in any space that is primarily uplit, the key is to produce an adequate sensation of brightness. The airport has a fairly low light level, about 15fc, which we complement by lighting vertical planes," Stone says. "We have wall washers at the luminous glass walls throughout the project, and in places like the bathrooms, the ticket stations, and the retail corridor in the Departures area, we have surfaces lit more or less at eye level."

Departing Departures, FMS lit additional massive spaces for the airport. Arrivals, an apt contrast to the rooftop illumination, deserves special mention. Stone says there is some metal-halide downlighting that comes in from the high catwalks in Departures, "but at the low levels it's all one sort of fluorescent or another. In Arrivals, there's an exquisite concrete coffer system that Foster and Partners painstakingly sanded, filled, and painted. In that coffer is an acoustical 'miniature vault' which required either a linear fluorescent or a point-source-style compact fluorescent downlight."

Thorn Lighting Hong Kong was tapped to provide the bulk of the linear fluorescents used on the project, with England's Design Architectural Lighting (DAL) handling the point-source illumination. "Everything regarding the lighting was custom-designed, including the mounting hardware and the housings. The hardware had to have a certain amount of 'wiggle room,' because all the downlighting and linear fluorescent fixtures are mounted in concrete or architectural details that had to align across the coffers. When you're looking down a football field's length of lighting fixtures, you must have proper alignment."

In a final nod to aesthetics, Stone says all the reflector sheet at Hong Kong International Airport is a high-performance matte finish "that we'd never done anywhere else, so we could match the colors of Foster's material palette. We didn't want the architectural details to have a shiny, specular look, or a semi-diffused one."

With the airport largely completed, Lighting Dimensions asked Stone to jot down a few impressions when he recently touched down in Hong Kong to review current FMS assignments in the region. "The cumulative effect of the roof vaults is at once uplifting and mesmerizing," he wrote in an e-mail. "Departing on a cloudy afternoon in March, I had the feeling I was already soaring as I walked across the Departures hall bridges. The luminous progression from that particular Foster's white paint of the roof vaults through the range of grays in the material palette blends the edges of the terminal into the Hong Kong haze--really a beautiful effect."

Hong Kong International Airport cost about 4 billion Pounds ($6.4 billion)--a considerable sum, but only one-third of the total budget allotted to the Airport Core Program. This ambitious blend of public and private monies and talent is designed to bring Lantau (the largest of the islands in the Hong Kong archipelago, and largely unpopulated) closer to bustling Hong Kong Island and Kowloon via a six-lane highway, two massive suspension bridges, and a high-speed railway line with Grand Central-sized stations. A new town, named Tung Chung, is being erected on the island, and all this combined should come in handy if Disney chooses to build a theme park on Lantau, as is rumored.

FMS was asked in 1993 to take the train to the plane and consult on the railway station lighting, a job that has spiraled to include 51 existing stops on Hong Kong's MTR line. Stone, Garcia, Hershman, and Brian Mosbacher from FMS also became involved in an arts program designed to beautify the stations, and lit three pieces before the recession halted the effort.

Birds of a Feather, by New Zealand-based sculptor Neil Dawson, required evocative illumination to take wing. It is a 99'-long (33m) aluminum mesh feather mounted in Tsing Yi Station, midway between Hong Kong and the airport. Lighting "paints" the barbules and barbicells of the feather (pictured) to resemble the plumage of different tropical birds. Moving lights seemed a feasible solution for the task, but their short lamp life, and the MTRC's energy and maintenance requirements, grounded that possibility. Plus, as the sculpture was commissioned after the station had already been designed, the only place to put fixtures was within troughs made for architectural uplights.

Working with Dawson's LD Joe Hayes, FMS used 108 low-voltage, shielded-filament, tungsten-halogen fixtures from Erco, with red, green, and blue filters, to create the plumage. To control the colors independently, the fixtures (which have a 3,000-hour lamp life that satisfied the authorities) were mounted to inverted three-circuit track segments. The translucent quill is constantly bathed in white light as eye-catching patterns play across other sections of the feather, in 11-minute loops programmed on an ETC theatrical console.

When traveling to and from the airport, visitors are advised to look for Birds, and further examples of artistry and aviation, when Hong Kong's economy takes off again.