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AIRPORT DESIGN Last modified on July 22, 2011

Designer terminals

Robin Stone reflects on the evolution of the airport terminal and takes a closer look at five of the world’s most prestigious facilities.

He may not stand on the same architectural pedestal as Frank Lloyd Wright or Sir Norman Foster, but Hans Hopp carved a name for himself in aviation history at a Prussian seaport called Konigsberg.

Hopp would not have realised it at the time, of course, but the building he designed 90 years ago was the world’s first commercial airport terminal. Kalingrad Devau Airport, as it is now known, operates today as a small general aviation airfield on Russia’s Baltic coast serving the cargo and leisure markets. (The original terminal building is still in use as an aviation sports club).

As flying became more popular during the 1930s and 1940s, airport terminals sprang up like global mushrooms. They were designed to face the tarmac, allowing passengers either to walk or board a shuttle bus to the waiting aircraft.

Today, that concept – with the exception of small domestic airports – has become virtually redundant as the evolution of piers and satellite terminals linked by tunnels, monorails, aerial walkways and people movers has taken airport design into a new era.

During the 1970s airport planners began to move away from the single-design concept, and concentrated on how different terminal designs could be used to accommodate variations in traffic.

The success of the new ‘alternative’ designs lay in their ability to handle transfer traffic, to deal with passenger peaks and whether planners had got it right when deciding whether or not terminal facilities should be centralised.

While terminals must first and foremost be functional, newer constructions are architectural works of art, reflecting local culture, customs, history and even landscape.



The white ‘tented’ appearance of Denver International Airport, for instance, was designed to mirror Colorado’s mountains away in the distance, while the TWA terminal at New York JFK designed by Eero Saarinen with its abstract ‘flight’ design, is feted as an architectural masterpiece.

Elements of terminal design can bring prestige to airports such as San Francisco, where the emphasis is on protecting the environment.

SFO’s new-look Terminal 2 claims to be America’s first gold-certified LEED airport (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), constructed from debris recycled from the old airport, and designed to cut energy use by 20%. Benefits to ‘green’ passengers at SFO include preferential parking for drivers of hybrid cars.

The $1 billion international terminal, which opened in 2000, is the largest international terminal in North America, and the biggest building in the world built on base isolators to protect it against earthquakes.

Qatar’s Doha International Airport was the first to open a premium terminal exclusively for first and business class passengers in 2006 at a cost of $90 million. Facilities include ‘e-gates’ to speed up immigration, a 24-hour medical centre and a business centre. Mexico City is one of the few airports worldwide which uses a mobile lounge, where passengers are transported from gate to aircraft in a large vehicle which docks directly to the terminal and the aircraft.

In general, the challenge facing today’s airport planners is to combine functionality and passenger flow within a spacious, light and airy environment more akin to modern shopping malls – consigning the spectre of cramped concourses and lengthy queues to the pages of history.

Incheon, South Korea
The airport planners and designers who sketched out their perception of Seoul’s state-of-the art Incheon Airport clearly got something right. Since 2005, Incheon has been rated best airport in the world by ACI and received the maximum 5-star ranking by Skytrax, an honour shared only by Hong Kong International and Changi.

The design spec had to ensure that Incheon was equipped to handle the new A380 and the next generation of new large aircraft.

Incheon, famous for its 22-floor control tower and giant hall below, opened in early 2001, replacing Gimpo International. Built on reclaimed land between two islands off the South Korean mainland, Incheon was designed with fluidity in mind. Opened just six months after September 11 attacks, the airport’s security system was immediately upgraded – as was medical equipment, in response to life-threatening epidemics in neighbouring countries.

Incheon is still only halfway through its four-phase development plan. When phase four is completed in 2020, the airport will have a handling capability of 100 million passengers per year, with 128 gates and four parallel runways.

The trend which dictates that newly built airports should reflect a strong national identity is evidenced in the fact that Incheon’s complex incorporates a Museum of Korean Culture.

Beijing T3
Beijing Capital International Airport’s Terminal 3, the world’s second largest terminal, opened in March 2008. Designed by Foster+Partners, its primary function – handling a huge increase in both international and domestic passengers – was combined with architecture that has made it a cultural emblem.

The challenge was to build from scratch a modern, flexible terminal on an undeveloped site in time for the Olympic Games. The design had to allow for further expansion to accommodate any increase on the 60m passengers predicted for 2015.

“Most airports evolve over a long period of time,” said Jonathan Parr, a design group partner at Foster’s. “This was a chance to do everything in one go. It was a rare opportunity.”

Intelligent use of natural light was a key component of the design. “In the centre of the building you are quite far from the nearest wall, so you need to bring natural light in from the roof,” says Parr.

“Sunlight also warms the air, which minimises the heating load. However, the proportion of the roof that is glazed is fairly low, so the building does not require a lot of cooling in the summer.

“The day lighting is the single biggest environmental part of the design, as it means only the minimum amount of energy is required to light the building and, if the balance is right, to heat and cool it.”

A Feng Shui expert advised on the shape of the arrival area. “The overall design was felt to be very calming and inviting, which is exactly what we wanted,” adds Parr.


London Heathrow T5

Heathrow T5 was designed to facilitate air travel through the world’s busiest international hub. Architects Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, worked closely with BAA and British Airways, alongside integrated design teams.

T5’s original design had to be ‘compressed’ so that it did not encroach on green belt land. The newly designed terminal, however, was so tall that it would have blocked runway views from Heathrow’s old control tower, so a new 285ft tower was assembled off-site before being erected within LHR’s central terminal area.

Another problem the designers had to overcome concerned the terminal’s iconic roof. It could not be lifted into place using conventional cranes which would have penetrated the airport’s radar field. The solution was to assemble it on the ground and lift it into place with smaller cranes.

T5 – unlike other airport terminals – does not have direct road access. It is situated behind a six-floor frontage housing a multi-storey car park, bus station and taxi rank.

Key to the design is flexibilty of space. Departure and arrivals areas, check-in desks, commercial space, shops, offices and lounges are all contained within freestanding steel-framed structures,which can be dismantled and reconfigured.

The curved, ‘floating’ roof is supported by slender columns around the perimeter, keeping the interior column-free, and maximising layout flexibility.

One of T5’s main innovations was its ‘flow-through” layout at check-in. The majority of passengers use self-service check-in, or check in online. Passengers flow through the check-in area in one direction towards security using self-service kiosks, fast bag drops or manned service counters.

T5’s glazed, angled facades give the building its distinct shape. The glass is coated with a film, which controls the amount of sunlight entering the building, and to further manage the interior temperature solar panels have been fitted outside.




Dubai International T3

Dubai International Airport’s T3 is the world’s largest air terminal, its 1.5 million sqm capable of handling more than 43 million passengers per year. It was the major element of an expansion programme launched by Dubai’s Department of Civil Aviation in June 2002.

Terminal 3’s innovative design simplifies passenger flow and reduces walking distances across the terminal. Designed by Aéroports de Paris (ADP), it is shaped like an aircraft wing housing 180 check-in desks, first-class lounges, restaurants, 2,600 underground parking spaces and acres of retail space.

A third concourse was included in Dubai’s expansion programme to accommodate the increased number of passengers flying on the A380. Expected to be complete by the end of this year, Concourse 3 has 20 gates, of which 18 are earmarked for the A380.

Retail space housing duty-free goods and various restaurants is arranged in the form of a 450-metre shopping street managed by Dubai Duty-Free (DDF). To encourage shoppers to move freely around the massive retail area, DDF has adopted an “open frontage” approach; there are no windows or doors to any of the shops.

Stewart Caddick, managing director of specialist retail consultancy RCD, enthuses: “This has been a massive project. The end result is a retail environment in a class of its own.”

Madrid-Barajas T4
Madrid-Barajas’ Terminal 4 was designed by Antonio Lamela and Richard Rogers, and won the 2006 Stirling Prize.

The new terminal was designed to give passengers a stress-free start to their journey, and once again intelligent use of light was key to the design. Glass panes, rather than walls, and domes in the roof allow natural light to flood in.

Principal components of the design include the main terminal and a satellite building capable of handling 35 million passengers a year. The design team had to incorporate automatic baggage handling systems and people movers to connect the terminal with the satellite, as well as mainline and underground train stations.

The building’s modular design creates a repeating sequence of waves formed by vast wings of prefabricated steel. The roof is punctuated by glass, providing controlled natural light throughout the upper level.

Internally, the roof is clad in bamboo strips, giving it a smooth, seamless appearance. The lower, darker levels of the building – in striking contrast to the airy transparency of the passenger areas above – house baggage handling, storage and plant areas.

The new ‘showpiece’ terminal is one of the most distinctive passenger facilities on the planet and has helped established Madrid as a major European hub.

This article was featured in Airport World 2011 - Issue 3


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