Paul Andreu died in Paris on Oct. 11.

Paul Andreu, who passed away this month at age 80, did fantastic architecture you mostly saw in passing, usually in distraction, and often in an irritated or impatient frame of mind. That was because the core of his practice was the design of airports and other transportation hubs. I think that is the reason—together with the fact that he worked in France, no center of architecture discourse—that he never received his due for creating places whose use of light, scale, and sequence, all carried out with few materials and forms, achieved heights of effectiveness not seen since the baroque.

His magnum opus, and the job that gave him his break, was the new airport that French President Charles de Gaulle decreed for what was then the empty fields way north of Paris (in 1974, after de Gaulle’s death in 1970, the airport was renamed in his honor). Andreu had already worked on other grand structures—such as the Grande Arche at La Défense, as part of the team headed by Johann Otto van Spreckelsen—and received the commission for what was then called Paris Roissy Airport (after the town near where it was built) in 1967, after construction had already started, and worked on it for almost four decades. The original structure, now called Terminal 1, combined outer simplicity with inner complexity: It is the donut to Le Corbusier’s square at La Tourette, its center not filled with chapels and refectories for contemplative monks but with crisscrossing and angled tubes carrying world travelers across the void to the various stations of their checks and waiting areas. Andreu made his building—a temple of commerce and transportation, after all—almost as spiritual. The image of the round bunker, fed by a serpent’s nest of roads and spouting smaller circles that rose out of the tarmac and fed by tubes that dipped down from the main terminal in languorous waves before arriving into the center of each departure pod, was powerful but not as compelling as that game of pick-up sticks on the interior, which became the modern equivalent of the stairs at Garnier’s Opera House where you saw and were seen.

Luke Ma Terminal 1 at Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Herbert Frank Inside Andreu's Terminal 1 at Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Gunnar Klack Terminal 2 at Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Sergio Inside Andreu's Terminal 2 at Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Kent Wang Inside Andreu's Terminal 2 at Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Terminal 2, inaugurated in 1982, was not nearly as singular in its architecture, but its six sections, arranged in a loop around an airport hotel and interspersed with a high-speed train station, each had their own characteristics and effects: roofs that sailed, hypostyle halls, concrete pillars rising up around you to become balconies. Here, Andreu also developed the detailing of his structures so that the big forms came down into service structures that had their own logic and beauty—an ability that set him apart from architects such as Santiago Calatrava, FAIA, who seem to have no idea how to develop a big idea. In one case, however, either Andreu went too far, or the engineers or the contractors didn’t get it right, because the roof of 2E collapsed in 2004, killing four people and injuring three more.

Beyond such obvious failings, Charles de Gaulle Airport had more mundane faults. Designed for one type of air travel, it could not easily adapt to changes in patterns, security protocols, or new technologies. The fragmentation of Terminal 2 created long connection routes, exasperated by the elongation of the forms in plan and section. I loved going through the airport, and once spent a semi-happy night, marooned by flight cancellations, cocooned in the airport hotel where everything was curved, watching the architecture and the planes dance into the night. Most of my friends complained that it was all too much, too complicated: too much architecture.

LaurPhil Andreu had worked on Johann Otto van Spreckelsen's Grande Arche at La Défense previous to winning the commission to design the Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Gunawan Kartapranata Andreu's airport in Jakarta, Indonesia, blends High-Tech Modernism with vernacular forms.
Gunawan Kartapranata Inside Andreu's airport in Jakarta.

The other transportation buildings Andreu designed might have worked with more efficiency, but few achieved the grandeur and the elegance of Charles de Gaulle. The airports in Abu Dhabi and Manila for instance, seem tame in comparison. The strangest of all of Andreu’s designs is the airport for the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, in which he tried to create a hybrid between structural expressionism and vernacular forms by designing the building like a pumped-up version of a temple, replete with swooping roofs and red-painted columns. Strangely enough, it works, giving you a sense that you are both somewhere specific (though it could also be in Bangkok or the Japanese city of Nara) and are part of an international airport infrastructure.

Structures Andreu designed for other purposes, most notably the symphony hall he created next to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, were awesome in their forms, but lacked the sense of movement that made his airports so exhilarating. In recent years, much of his work was in China. In these designs, he moved in different directions, taking the buildings apart into forms that did not rely on structural bravura for their formal complexity or coherence. Unfortunately, he also gave up his reliance on public spaces whose roofs, sloping walls, jutting columns, and distended spaces gave you a sense of being in a place out of the ordinary, a site where you might be lifted to another (aero)plane.

Jorge Láscar Andreu's National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing opened in 2007.

With Andreu’s death—and, truth be told, for the last decade or so, regardless—the era of such an airport as one of the last places where architecture can make a grand statement based on structure while attempting to sweep the human body beyond its scale and normal patterns seems to be over. Airports have become so big that, like the ones under construction in Mexico City and Beijing (by Foster + Partners with FR-EE and by Zaha Hadid Architects, respectively), they merely impress or overwhelm. Less ambitious transportation nodes merely aim to work more efficiently.

Perhaps the latter is all for the better, as we will not waste time in them or money on them. But, to paraphrase Philip Johnson, I would gladly walk the length of Terminal 2 at Charles de Gaulle to find the bathroom.