Why Did the Charles-de-Gaulle Airport Terminal Collapse?

Scrutinizing the Architectural Process of Paul Andreu

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Craven, Jackie. "Why Did the Charles-de-Gaulle Airport Terminal Collapse?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 25, 2016, thoughtco.com/charles-de-gaulle-airport-terminal-collapse-3972251. Craven, Jackie. (2016, April 25). Why Did the Charles-de-Gaulle Airport Terminal Collapse? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/charles-de-gaulle-airport-terminal-collapse-3972251 Craven, Jackie. "Why Did the Charles-de-Gaulle Airport Terminal Collapse?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/charles-de-gaulle-airport-terminal-collapse-3972251 (accessed September 24, 2017).
Paul Andreu-designed Terminal 2E at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, France
Paul Andreu-designed Terminal 2E at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, France. Photo by Mark Williamson/Photolibrary/Getty Images

"I can't explain what happened. I just don't understand it," Paul Andreu, architect of the collapsed Charles-de-Gaulle Airport told L'Humanite newspaper. The 450-meter long terminal building near Paris, France is an elliptical tube constructed of concrete rings. Andreu, who also designed the French terminal for the English Channel Tunnel, drew upon principles of tunnel construction for the airport terminal building.

Shockingly, a huge chunk of Terminal 2E came crashing down on May 23, 2004.


When it opened in April 2003, many people praised the futuristic structure, calling it both beautiful and practical. Since there were no internal roof supports, passengers could move easily through the terminal. Some engineers say that the terminal's tunnel shape may have been a factor in the collapse. Buildings with no internal supports must rely entirely on the outer shell. However, investigators quickly pointed out that it is the role of engineers to assure the safety of an architect's designs. Leslie Robertson, a chief engineer of the World Trade Center towers, told the New York Times that when problems occur, it's usually in the "interface" between architects, engineers, and contractors.

Reasons for Collapse:

The collapse of a 110 foot section killed four people, injured three others, and left a 50 by 30 meter hole in the tubular design.

Was the fatal collapse caused by design flaws or oversights in construction? The official investigation report clearly said both. A part of Terminal 2 failed for two reasons:

  • Process Failure: A lack of detailed analysis and inadequate design checking allowed construction of a poorly engineered structure.
  • Structural Engineering Failure: A number of design flaws were not caught during construction, including:
    • lack of redundant supports
    • poorly placed reinforcing steel
    • weak outer steel struts
    • weak concrete support beams
    • low resistance to temperature

Lessons Learned:

How does a collapsed building in one country affect construction in another country?

At the time of the disaster in France, a multi-billion dollar construction project was underway in northern Virginia—a new train line from Washington, DC to Dulles International Airport. The subway tunnel was designed similarly to Paul Andreu's Paris airport. Could the D.C. Metro Silver Line be doomed to disaster?

A study prepared for U.S. Senator John Warner of Virginia noted a major difference between the two structures:

" The subway station, simply put, is a circular tube with air flowing down the middle of it. This hollow tube can be contrasted to Terminal 2E, which was a circular tube with air flowing outside of it. The outer casing of Terminal 2E was subjected to great temperature changes causing the outer steel to expand and contract."

The study concluded that a complete "design analysis would have predicted all structural deficiencies" within the Paris airport.

In essence, the collapse of Charles-de-Gaulle Airport Terminal was preventable and unnecessary had oversight been in place.

Architect Paul Andreu went on to create architectural masterpieces such as the titanium and glass National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing—still standing, since July 2007.

More About the Charles-de-Gaulle Airport Terminal Collapse:

Learn More:

  • The Discovery of Universal Space by Paul Andreu, 1998
    Buy on Amazon

    Source: Investigation of Tysons Central 7 Rail Station—Case Study: Terminal 2E Roof Collapse, Prepared for Senator John Warner by Chance Kutac and Zachary Webb, Technical Office of Senator John Warner, November 22, 2006, pp. 9, 15 [PDF at www.ce.utexas.edu/prof/hart/333t/documents/FinalReport2_07.pdf accessed May 24, 2004]