Terminal Velocity

Jürgen Mayer H. designs and builds a small ski-town airport in just four months.

J. Mayer H.



May–December romances are common enough, but who ever heard of August–December architecture? That was the unlikely life cycle of a small airport that opened on December 24 in Mestia, Georgia, an isolated ski town high in the Caucasus Mountains. Exactly four months earlier, on August 24, Jürgen Mayer H. was in Venice for the architecture biennale when he got a phone call from the Georgian goverment. The German architect, who has dedicated much of the last seven years to the Metropol Parasol—a wooden, mushroomlike complex that was finally completed this spring in Seville, Spain, after long delays—was asked to take on a building with a much shorter span. “They called and said, ‘We need an airport design tomorrow,’” he recalls. “‘Actually, yesterday, but tomorrow is OK too.”

That night, Mayer H. traded ideas with Jesko Malkolm Johnsson-Zahn, an architect in his Berlin office, sketching on paper and then sending photos of the drawings over his BlackBerry. By the next morning, they had settled on a form: a three-pronged, 3,000-square-foot folly arrayed like a chicken foot, with two slightly uplifted segments (for waiting areas and a café) on one side and a tower (for air-traffic control) on the other. The tinted-glass facade would be set between slabs of concrete, a locally favored material, making a modern-ist cake topped with a layer of white icing. The government approved, and construction began one month later.

Georgia hopes the airport will bring tourists to the mountainous region of Svaneti, whose stone towers and often impassible roads have made it a stronghold since the Middle Ages. (Those defensive towers, UNESCO World Heritage sites, helped inspire the vertical forms of the airport.) Driving from the capital, Tbilisi, takes as long as ten hours; the government-subsidized flights cut the trip to less than an hour. “Since we really want to promote this area as a touristic attraction, of course you need a good transportation possibility,” says Kate Aleksidze, the director of United Airports of Georgia. “If we would not manage to open it in December and opened it instead in June, people would be there, but we would miss the whole winter season.”

Mayer H., who has worked on other Georgian government projects before—the border station between Georgia and Turkey, highway rest stops, and a train station for a new line to Azerbaijan—wasn’t used to designing so quickly, but he took it in stride. “That’s the way that we work with them,”
he says. “It’s very fast, and then sometimes we don’t hear from them for weeks, and then they want it again tomorrow.” He attributes it to the country’s tumultous passage from Soviet vassal to fledgling democracy. “They have no patience to wait,” he says.

In this case, the urgency came from the highest levels. In early 2010, according to Georgia Today, the country’s largest English-language newspaper, President Mikheil Saakashvili said of Mestia, “You can call it a whim, but I want to land in a helicopter in person on New Year’s Eve this year.” As it turned out, he got his wish early. The president was on hand to open the airport on Christmas Eve.

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