Madrid’s new Barajas airport takes Gus Alexander by surprise at every turn. Offering a stimulating and innovative space, he discovers that it’s more a feat in Spanish pragmatism than technicality

It’s not often that I get a rush of excitement when I find myself going into a new building, but it does happen. It happened the first time I went into Michael and Patti Hopkins’ awe-inspiring Westminster Underground station on the Jubilee Line. The British Library entrance hall isn’t bad and the fifth-floor restaurant on the top of Harvey Nicks was delicious.

But Barajas airport in Madrid is simply astonishing. I’d spent the previous day in Barcelona, wandering around two Gaudí apartment blocks, the gothic cathedral (with its open-air cloister complete with geese) and the sublime Picasso Museum in the Ramblas, so I was in a very pro-Iberian mood. This was much enhanced by my experience of its brand new 300km/h train, which got us into Madrid (a similar distance to that between London and Edinburgh) in two hours and 20 minutes, with Dave Brubeck on the in-carriage headphones as dusk fell. So I was definitely up for it when my brother asked if I wanted to have a look at the new terminal.

What I’d read about Barajas was that the whole project had worked well as a collaborative effort. “We are a Spanish aviation company and we need a new airport. We’re going to build it here, in the middle of nowhere. We’d like to appoint you, Lord Rogers, to be our big-time superstar architect because we like what we’ve seen, and we’ve got a firm of local architects, Estudio Lamela, to help you with the idiosyncracies of the local construction industry, aka Ferrovial. Can we get a wiggle on please?”

The first thing I see is six or seven vast multistorey car parks. Insitu concrete spirals with huge concrete decks on six or seven levels. What really lifts them is the sculptural quality of the concrete, contrasted with the fantastically fine mesh infill between the floors. This is all brought to life with huge graphics and red-and-green winking lights at each floor level, in front of each aisle and over each parking bay, which tell you if there are any spaces on a floor, and if so, where to find them.

Once you’re out of the car, you’re practically in the terminal. Within a few yards, you’re already on your first trottoir roulant heading across the concourse. It’s always more dramatic when these places are half-empty and relatively quiet, but apparently Barajas is so huge that it’s pretty quiet even when packed.

I wasn’t actually flying, but I’m sure that if I were, the building would dissipate the disorientation I usually associate with airports

Like all airports these days, it’s a big shed. But what a sexy shed. The roof is a series of undulating M-shaped curves, with raking steel props descending to Y-shaped concrete supports. It’s like a giant model of a Leonardo da Vinci flying machine, or an explanatory skeleton of a gull’s wing. The metal is painted yellow (or blue or green, depending where you are) and the ceiling is covered with bamboo ribs, like a vast pinoleum place mat. The light is bounced up to and off this so you can’t see any lamps. There is lots of Rogers’ Dan Dare imagery, such as the inclined air-con units, which look like hair dryers or periscopes.

The great thing is that when you get up close to all this high-tech wizzardry, it’s all very basic. The concrete haunches that support the bases of the enormous steels, far from having the silky-smooth finish you’d find in a car show room, are actually pocked with blister holes and have been filled and painted by hand. The bolts on the top are fantastically matter-of-fact. I wasn’t actually flying, but I’m sure that if I were, the building would dissipate the disorientation I usually associate with airports.

Wandering about in that fabulous space, you feel that it’s been a great success; that people like working in it, that people liked working on it, that people like using it. And yet, for something so vast, innovative and stimulating, a brief study shows that it has all been put together much more as an exercise in can-do pragmatism than look-at-me extravagance. I read somewhere the working drawings were completed in five months. On a programme like that, the value engineers don’t have time to put the batteries in their calculators before the steel fixers have put the bloody frames up.

I wonder if Terminal 5, with its 20-year gestation period and its ground-testing of every conceivable form of procurement, will offer the same scintillating and exuberant experience that Barajas does.