The 2004 Collapse at Airport Charles de Gaulle

Scrutinizing the Architectural Process of Paul Andreu

airport terminal with red carpeting and seats below a curved ceiling of lattice wood
Terminal 2E at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, France. Mark Williamson/Photolibrary/Getty Images

A huge chunk of Terminal 2E at the Charles-de-Gaulle Airport came crashing down in the early morning of May 23, 2004. The shocking event killed several people at the busiest airport in France, about 15 miles northeast of Paris. When a structure fails on its own accord, the event may be more frightening than a terrorist attack. Why did this structure fail in less than a year after opening?

The 450-meter long terminal building is an elliptical tube constructed of concrete rings.

French architect Paul Andreu, who also designed the French terminal for the English Channel Tunnel, drew upon principles of tunnel construction for the airport terminal building.

Many people praised the futuristic structure at Terminal 2, 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 original "twin towers" at the World Trade Center, 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 (1) a lack of redundant supports; (2) poorly placed reinforcing steel; (3) weak outer steel struts; (4) weak concrete support beams; and (5) low resistance to temperature.

After the investigation and careful disassembling, the structure was rebuilt with a metal framework built upon the existing foundation. It reopened in the spring of 2008.

Lessons Learned

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

Architects have become increasingly aware that complicated designs using space-age materials require the watchful oversight of many professionals. Architects, engineers, and contractors have to be working from the same game plan and not copies. "In other words," writes New York Times reporter Christopher Hawthorne, "it is in translating the design from one office to the next that mistakes are amplified and become deadly." The collapse of Terminal 2E was a wake-up call for many firms to use file-sharing software such as BIM.

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, D.C.

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.

About Architect Paul Andreu

French architect Paul Andreu was born July 10, 1938 in Bordeaux. Like many professionals of his generation, Andreu was educated as an engineer at the École Polytechnique and as an architect at the prestigious fine arts Lycée Louis-le-Grand.

He has made a career of airport design, beginning with the Charles-de-Gaulle (CDG) in the 1970s. From 1974 and throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Andreu's architecture firm was commissioned to build terminal after terminal for the growing air traffic hub. The extension of Terminal 2E opened in the spring of 2003.

For nearly forty years Andreu held commissions from the Aéroports de Paris, the operator of Paris airports. He was the Chief Architect for the building of the Charles-de-Gaulle before retiring in 2003. Andreu has been cited as shaping the face of aviation internationally with his high-profile airports in Shanghai, Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Brunei, Manila, and Jakarta. Since the tragic collapse, he has also been cited as an example of "architectural hubris."

But Paul Andreu designed buildings other than airports, including the Guangzhou Gymnasium in China, the Osaka Maritime Museum in Japan, and the Oriental Art Center in Shanghai. His architectural masterpiece may be the titanium and glass National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing — still standing, since July 2007.

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Craven, Jackie. "The 2004 Collapse at Airport Charles de Gaulle." ThoughtCo, Nov. 13, 2017, thoughtco.com/charles-de-gaulle-airport-terminal-collapse-3972251. Craven, Jackie. (2017, November 13). The 2004 Collapse at Airport Charles de Gaulle. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/charles-de-gaulle-airport-terminal-collapse-3972251 Craven, Jackie. "The 2004 Collapse at Airport Charles de Gaulle." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/charles-de-gaulle-airport-terminal-collapse-3972251 (accessed November 21, 2017).