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The control tower – a modern totem of the flying community

Few things capture the marriage of form and function more strikingly than the control tower.


There’s a thrill of vulnerability that comes with flouting the laws of gravity and conquering the skies that grips our imagination. Control towers, which exist solely to keep us safe, mitigate this vulnerability. However, despite their crucial role, and the fact that they are often designed by the world’s most dazzling architects, they mostly go unnoticed. Why don’t we stop and stare, as stare we should, at these astonishing leviathans, which provide some of the most sensational workplaces on the planet?

In her book, Art of the Airport Tower, Carolyn Russo set out to change attitudes with a photographic tour of 85 historic and contemporary control towers in 23 countries. “I saw them as the unsung heroes of the airport landscape and tried to elevate them beyond their height and amazing architecture.” Her book is a tribute to these prized architectural specimens, which seem to fit somewhere between heaven and earth – striking, sometimes surreal, always otherworldly.

The world before the advent of the control tower is hard to imagine: “Pre-1930s, air traffic control consisted of a man waving a red or a green flag!” says Derek Brien, NATS Project Manager. To understand the depth of his experience and encyclopaedic knowledge, consider this: in one lifetime an airport may build a single new control tower; in Derek Brien’s lifetime he has been involved in the building of nine of them!

“Interestingly, radio-transmitted air traffic control was pioneered by Croydon Airport in the twenties, while most of our airfields were constructed in the thirties by the military, and they are still in use today. In terms of their relationship with the runway, they’ve always been fit for purpose – it was passengers who changed everything.”

Croydon Tower

Croydon tower: radio-transmitted air traffic control was pioneered here in the twenties

Indeed. In the 1920s, Imperial Airways was Britain’s single international airline – a fleet of post-WW1 planes in which only the well heeled could afford to fly. By the late 1950s, jet-engine aircraft had entered the frame, increasing passenger numbers and leading to more efficient capacity utilisation. Although the democratisation of the air had started, airport expansion was still fairly minimal at this point.

But in 1978 the US government introduced the Airline Deregulation Act, removing the protection of its airline industry and liberalising competition between air carriers. Fast-forward to 1997 when Europe followed suit, and we can see how the European air travel market was redrawn, resulting in skyrocketing passenger numbers.

The consequence is massively increased complexity of today’s major airports. They have to allow for a huge range of logistical processes, technical aviation requirements and leisure activities. As such, they’re more akin to small towns, complete with hotels, restaurants, shops, warehouses, railway stations, offices and multi-storey car parks; architects compete fiercely for the kudos attached to creating such prestigious gateways to cities.

Given that the role of controllers is to keep aircraft apart and maintain their speed relative to each other within required safety limits, they need an unimpeded 360º view of runway thresholds, taxiways and manoeuvring areas. The expansion of airport and terminals means that control towers have had to adapt to these new environments.

Heathrow’s new tower, for example, came about because controllers simply couldn’t see Terminal 5 from the old one. “Towers are literally built for the view,” says Derek. “The lower the tower, the greater the impression of an aircraft’s speed; the higher it is, the more like a video game it feels – less real, somehow.”

At its simplest, it could be a concrete column topped with a functional 70-square-metre visual control room accommodating up to twelve controller positions, depending on the size of the airport. Manchester is a prime example: carefully designed for maximum efficiency, its control tower fulfils all the requirements at optimum levels.

Edinburgh tower: a sculptural landmark clad in diamond-shaped zinc plates attached in a continuous pattern

Others take a different approach: Edinburgh’s legacy was an uninspiring 1950s tower which was replaced in 2005 with a sculptural landmark, a modern cultural icon for a city steeped in history, to be enjoyed by generations to come.

Standing 57 metres high and clad in 10,000 diamond-shaped zinc plates all installed by hand, it’s a sleek and imposing presence on the main forecourt access road, bringing a new dimension to Edinburgh’s skyline.

And the next big thing?

The remote control tower. Sweden already has one: Örnsköldsvik airport lands its passenger aircraft from a control room 100km away thanks to cameras that have replaced the panoramic windows. The value of controlling airports in the middle of nowhere, where keeping a permanent staff is unfeasible, is incalculable.

In urban contexts, on the other hand, the compulsory restrictive zones around control towers limit architectural choices, as nothing can be allowed to obstruct controllers’ views. “We’re actively discussing remote towers right now,” says Derek. “If an airport needs a new control tower, then rather than building a new one, they can consider a remote tower. This is a first, as it involves a technical solution that hasn’t been available to date.”

Virtual Control Room: offering a remote facility to the runway. Image provided by SAAB

Virtual Control Room: offering a remote facility to the runway. Image provided by SAAB

There is little doubt that this is the future, and the days of control towers that are architectural masterpieces have been consigned to history.

To quote Carolyn Russo, “Airport traffic control towers have a powerful presence – they watch over the vastness of the airport and sky, are a non-judgmental cultural greeter, a choreographer or conductor of the aircraft dance, a mother bird caring for her flock and an omniscient, intelligent structure keeping humans safe.”

Photos © Carolyn Russo/Smithsonian Art of the Airport Tower, Smithsonian Books, 2015

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