Norman Foster is no stranger to designing airports. The Pritzker Prize-winning British architect’s projects include aviation hubs in Hong Kong, Beijing and Amman – as well as plans for the ‘world’s most sustainable airport’ in Mexico City.

Now his firm Foster + Partners has shifted its focus to another form of flying, proposing to build the world’s first ‘Droneport’ in Rwanda. The structure will provide a hub for specialist unmanned aircraft carrying blood and medical supplies to places that are largely inaccessible by road – and will bring together other services such as a health clinic and a post room.

Lead designer Narinder Sagoo sees it as a continuation in the firm’s approach. “If you look at the chronology of airports, at Stansted [outside London] we turned the conventional airport system upside down – allowing natural light in, creating flexible space and open structures where you can see airplanes outside,” he tells BBC Culture. “A way to connect with the sky.”

The Droneport project features brick vaults that can link together to create those flexible spaces, and at the same time it draws on more recent designs. “In Mexico City, we’re exploring a way of bringing the separate elements of an airport – the roof, the bridges – together in one skin,” says Sagoo. “The roof becomes the ceiling, which becomes the walls and leads you all the way to your aircraft – it’s a continuous journey.”

It draws on the philosophy of US visionary Buckminster Fuller. “Structurally, we’re doing more with less. In Mexico, we’re creating spans of up to 170m (558 ft), and using local labour to make that roof. The Droneport is a smaller, more humble building, but it’s doing the same thing – doing more with less, using a very small amount of high-tech architectural thinking,” says Sagoo. “We’re using what we find there – the African red earth, which is of its place.”

In 2012, Foster + Partners created a vision for a base on the moon that would use lunar soil as a building material – 3D printed to create the component parts. Similarly, the Droneport project aims to source raw materials on the ground, with just the basic framework and brick-press machinery delivered to site and the bricks made out of local clay.

African union

Work on the Droneport is set to start in 2016, and the buildings are scheduled to be completed by 2020. Further phases of the project could see more Droneports across Rwanda – and beyond. “We’re aiming for the project to spread across the continent, creating connectivity in countries that are less connected than Rwanda,” says Sagoo.

“It’s the new infrastructure of this century. In many parts of Africa, the economy is never going to catch up to population growth – the Droneport could leapfrog the building of motorways, tunnels or bridges, just as mobile phones mean that landlines are no longer needed. And it could be applied to airport design – the same approach we’re taking to the Droneport can be carried over.”

With that kind of a remit, the architects aimed to design something that had a strong visual impact. “The roof comes down to the ground; the form of the building is emblematic – it can be seen from a distance. It becomes a symbol, in the same way Italian petrol stations did in Africa, they’ve become iconic but they’re also affordable. It gives people hope that there’s something new that’s helping life.”

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