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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Building Sights: Boeing 747, by Norman Foster

What is the essence of a building? Well, it must protect you from the elements, keep you warm when it’s cold, cool when it’s hot, and it should tell you something about its age – its place in time. This design has a place in time that is without doubt fixed in the second half of the twentieth century. It exudes confidence, style, technology and friendliness in a way that very few others have managed. Most buildings are specialised, but this one is very specialised indeed. It is a jumbo jet.

With about three thousand square feet of floor space, fifteen lavatories, three kitchens and a capacity for up to 367 guests, this is surely a true building. But at the same time this machine blurs the distinction between technology and building, and what’s more it flies!

It has an extraordinary presence. The tail is higher than a six-storey building.  I suppose it’s the grandeur, the scale; it’s heroic, it’s also pure sculpture – it does not really need to fly, it could sit on the ground, it could be in a museum. I suspect it is one of those icons of the late twentieth century that future generations will still look on in wonder.

The fact that we call this an aeroplane rather than a building – or engineering rather than architecture – is really a historical hangover because for me much of what we have here is genuinely architectural both in its design and its thinking.

Once you are inside there are many parallels with modern buildings. Like many offices it is a fixed shell and a movable interior but there is a certain anticlimax. It is really rather bland in many ways. You could say it is in the international hotel style, which I suppose is appropriate – people come and go, it does not have a great deal of character and it could be almost anywhere.

I am really quite passionate about flying whether it is in tiny aircraft or giant Jumbos like this, which may explain why I protest that most airports are depressingly more and more like shopping centres. You barely see the aircraft and when you do you are inside and the experience of flying is almost anaesthetised with drinks, food and movies. The windows are closed. There is instant music. Almost anything to pretend that you are doing something other than flying, which may be what the interior is all about. Somewhere there is a missed opportunity here. The reason is that unlike the exterior, marketing is largely responsible for the interior of this place. However, tucked away from view, there are glimpses of the real thing.

The surprisingly tiny but ruthlessly functional flight deck is a twinkling beauty and the layout is ergonomically efficient. At a more humdrum level the business class toilets are admirably space-efficient and finely detailed pieces of industrial architecture. Elsewhere there are elegant touches: recessed snag-free handles on all the doors. The galleys have a marvellous ‘American diner-style’, all stainless steel and black plastic that seems sadly orphaned in a place that usually serves pre-cooked food. Of course safety regulations turn some parts into pure art, and in the end it is this exuberance of technology-as-art that uplifts this assembly of parts.

There is, I believe, a common misconception about architecture and design – the belief that if the forces of nature are allowed to create form then that form will be automatically beautiful (the ‘if it looks right it is right’ sort of argument). Personally, I think this is nonsense. There is no doubt that an aircraft is an extreme example, but I cannot believe mere aerodynamics gave this piece of industrial architecture its heroic outer form.

This thing was designed. In fact an engineer, Joseph F Sutter, is credited as the chief designer. It is not decorated, it has style, by that I mean metaphoric elements associated with cultural ideas of speed, efficiency, power, strength, dependability – and yet it is genuinely beautiful. I believe all modern architecture is capable of this intrinsic style and beauty without compromising its function.

These tensions between scale, symbolism and function are purely architectural. Classical and modern buildings often impress by their silhouette alone, but when we get closer they lose that impact and when close enough to touch they can be a real disappointment – let down by shoddy workmanship and bad detailing. Only the greatest bear close inspection. On this basis, the Boeing 747 is a monumental achievement. Awe inspiring in flight, beautiful closer up, and when we reach it, exquisitely detailed.

We don’t make buildings on sites any more, we make pieces in a factory, bring them to the site and put them together which is exactly how this aircraft is made, a series of sub-assemblies, little pieces that come together to make the total aircraft.

This is a sixties aircraft and it first flew in 1969. Its projected life is maybe another thirty years.  We think of buildings as enduring. This aircraft is more enduring that a lot of the sixties buildings which are already coming down. Why are they coming down? Because they cannot respond to change. This aircraft’s shell is enduring – it responds to change. There is a lot to learn from this ‘building’. In one sense you could say it is the ultimate technological building site.


  1. Dude, where did you get this stuff? I want some of what he is drinking. :D

    But yeah he is right, this thing we all call the 747 is more than the sum of its parts, and unlike buildings, it can change with the time. Well at least that is what this writer believes and he is right about that too.

    So what was the excuse for not fitting PW GTF's on it? Or looking to improve the baseline model now in production. Or just simply putting up options on the table and see where those end up?

    The last I heard is that the Iranians wont be buying any new ones, because it is rumored that they weren't offered any.

    We'll just have to get used to seeing pics of DC-3's hanging on the walls when the 778 rolls out. sigh.

  2. News earlier this week that ABC will firm 10 more of their 20 MoU from last summer. They had 2 last year, and I believe 2 earlier this year in March (the other 2 appear to be Atlas frames), which would bring their total firmed to 14 when finalized. They also confirm that they will take all 20 from their MoU.

    Then today, the good news that the Boeing-Iran Air deal will most likely include 747-8 Intercontinentals. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if it included both -8i and -8F, but it will be nice to see the Intercontinental getting some love. I assume the China deal will be announced at some point this year as well, which should include some -8is as well. Perhaps Turkey will stop their hemming and hawing and eventually place an order as well. :-)

  3. Lets all have fingers crossed.

    BTW you might want to check out this thread about Belly freight on

    It appears that CX is currently looking to Cram as many seats as possible into their 77W's and you know what else? The Belly freight thing ain't workin' for them on ULH. If that is true, why didn't they buy the 8i instead?

    However I will not rant and rave of opportunities lost in days past.

  4. Charlie,

    Not quite correct. Yes, CX is looking to go 10 across in economy on their 77W. However, this is consistent within the industry and offset by the availability of premium economy for those who are less than impressed. Also, first class is becoming less and less common as the premium seat is in business class. Overall, the jet gets heavier in the passenger cabin, and those passengers use more belly space for checked bags.

    However, belly cargo remains a driver for yield on these long haul flights. CX carries as much as 125T per day in belly cargo on its flights from Hong Kong to places such as London or LA. While none of this can be the higher yielding, cargo aircraft only freight, it replaces a daily freighter to those destinations. London sees a dedicated freighter very infrequently while LA shares dedicated freighter ops with cities down in Mexico or other large US cities such as Chicago or Dallas.

    All of that being said, I do believe CX made a mistake by not operating the 747-8I. The aircraft would do very well on their trunk routes (JFK, LA, SFO) by offering another 100 seats per flight without sacrificing much cargo volume. It also would have lessened the impact of their pilot shortage. If I were running the show at CX, I would have taken 8 -8Is in lieu of 8 -8Fs (14 total) and retained the 8 777F orders which eventually ended up at Air China Cargo. This would have created far better flexibility both in terms of seats and cargo space. As it is now, CX has 747 freighters leaving HK less than full and long haul 777 passenger services departing within an hour or two of each other. It could be optimized so much better, but the orders were wrong.

    1. Thanks for the interesting information. 125T is a lot of freight. Must be gold bars or something.

      I do believe that Mr. Slosar was going to buy the 8I. I've seen a graphic from Boeing that shows that this RFP was in the bag. Suddenly of course, it never happened, and Slosar left CX.

      This type of thing has been happening frequently, first with CI, then LX and other RFP's. I can only conclude that the Board of Directors voted down the deal before it was signed. So influence with people on such boards sells planes, geddit. I'll just leave you here with that thought.

  5. Well, the reports, based on a letter to two lawmakers that apparently had concerns about the deal, indicate that Iran Air will be picking up 4 747-8is. Confirmation from other sources seem to indicate that the two UN white tails will be theirs, along with (most likely) two new builds.

    I would have liked to see a larger order, but there is still a chance that the number will be more. There was pretty good consensus from reports about the Airbus Iran Air order, but when it was formalized, the final numbers were different. While that isn't likely, it is possible. Beyond that, if they do need the lift quickly, it is possible that they could order more going forward, as well as the possibility that they could pick up -8F frames once freighters are allowed to be sold to them.

    1. I will assure you that the Iranians, have no idea of what they are buying in terms of all these new planes.

      Iran has been isolated from the Aviation world for more than 30 years, and then suddenly comes out and buys equipment that requires an ETOPS maintenance regime, 2 aircrews rather than 3, Fly by Wire, Carbon Fibre, Large Current Geberation Engines, IFE's..........

      /Throws away your maintenance procedures booklet/

  6. Any confirmation on what the Iranian serial numbers will be? What about the BBJ at Pinal?