High-flying design lifestyle
Constantly seeking new designs which effortlessly blend beauty and functionality, architecture is a crucial factor when converting airports into original, modern and meaningful design spaces.
“Architecture revolves around wellbeing. People want to feel good in a space. On the one hand, it’s about making it into a refuge, but it’s also about making it a pleasurable and stimulating place for all aspects of a social life. Ultimately, it should make our lives easier”. Zaha Hadid explained this when discussing the various civil buildings she designed across the world. These include the recently opened Beijing Airport (China), which reflects this philosophy, even if she was unable to see its completion (the architect died in 2016). And there is truly nothing more complex than successfully combining aesthetics and practicality between four walls.
Airports are the most significant example of a construction project which needs to be big enough to accommodate millions of travellers, and also allow them to move from one point to the next as quickly and efficiently as possible. But they are also places where people spend a lot of time. Creating a pleasant and friendly environment is one of the most significant issues that any architect hopes to address when developing a project of this type.
An airport’s practical and aesthetic needs
Some of the features which are top of the list of a modern airport’s requirements include spacious, bright surroundings, points which aren’t too far apart and simple solutions which avoid labyrinthine structures so travellers don’t get lost. With a touch of aesthetic harmony, the equation is complete. It’s the only thing that can ease the already stressful process of air travel.
Architects are deeply mindful of creating welcoming spaces, as explained by the Turkish designer Seyhan Özdemir, founder of the Autoban design firm and responsible for Baku airport in Azerbaijan: “Due to globalisation, the way we travel is changing rapidly and airports are becoming destinations for the tourism industry in themselves. They are the face of the country which welcomes the traveller, the place where they receive a first impression of its culture”.
Seyhan Özdemir: “Airports are becoming destinations for the tourism industry in themselves”
The renowned Spanish architect Luis Vidal, who worked with the firm Foster + Partners for the Heathrow Airport Terminal 2 project and director of his own studio since 2004, acknowledges that we need a multidisciplinary insight into the matter. “The first challenge as airport architects is the social aspect: how to contribute socially so that users enjoy our designs. Understanding what happens when a passenger has to travel by air, and their feelings. Where possible, we help users to mitigate negative feelings and reduce their stress levels using design tools. The selection of colours, materials and textures as a factor provides good insight, as well as adapting the building to a personal level, viewing the environment from the inside and the important role of natural light”, he explains.
Luis Vidal: “We help users to mitigate negative feelings and reduce their stress levels”
In recent times, there have been many projects involving major architecture firms which tackle the improbable challenge of building beautiful and practical airports, where the use of more modern materials has been one of the main demands and requirements.
The eight projects featured below are some highlights.
1. Denver International Airport (USA)
Although airport architecture is, in general, a category where the United States is not known for its brilliance, this airport in Colorado’s capital city is a glimmer of originality in a desert of glum buildings. It is a design by the international firm Fentress Architects, responsible for a large number of public projects, including the Palm Springs Convention Centre, the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming, or the Los Angeles Airport Tom Bradley International Terminal.
Inspiration is taken from a row of canvas tents which look like the Rocky Mountains. The building’s silhouette inverts the traditional structure in an unprecedented manner, relocating mechanical infrastructure underground from the roof. This allows the huge building to become an open-plan space flooded with light.
The tent peaks stand more than forty metres from the ground. At sunrise and sunset, they turn a colour similar to the mountains. Unsurprisingly, the American Institute of Architects gave it fourth place on its list of top US buildings.
2. Abu Dhabi International Airport (United Arab Emirates)
Opened in 2007 and extended and refurbished ten years later, this building in the capital of the United Arab Emirates is the second largest in the country, designed by the architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF) as a gateway to the city. It has large open spaces which improve the passenger experience and which can be used long-term for different requirements.
One of the objectives of this project is to cement Abu Dhabi as a communication centre and tourist destination. Other developments which have taken place in this city, such as the cultural projects on Saadiyat Island, also form part of the master plan which includes the Terminal. Over 84,000 tonnes of steel and thousands of glass panels were needed to build the complex, with a maximum capacity exceeding 50 million passengers and 2 million tonnes of cargo per year.
The central departure lounge is 50 metres tall and has an art gallery measuring 8,400 square metres. The most eye-catching feature is the large palm tree-style column which rises from the floor to the ceiling, acting as an allegory for one of the country’s natural emblems, which also represents its wealth.
3. Rome-Fiumicino Airport (Rome, Italy)
The Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Rome, also known as Fiumicino, was opened in the 1960s. It currently welcomes over 100,000 passengers per day and has four terminals. Last year the Italian architect Giovanna Pontecorvo was tasked to remodel it and transform its facilities with some of the highest standards of technical and environmental quality. To carry out the project, she used the Porcelanosa Group’s Krion K-Life compact mineral for the new check-in desks.
The white in Krion’s colour range (with 99.8% whiteness) highlights each zone’s radiance. Pontecorvo chose Krion for its strength, bacteriological properties, zero porosity, ecological composition and easy cleaning. This material provides greater consistency for large surface areas with constant traffic.
Krion’s K-Life version is a photocatalytic material which reduces environmental contamination, and its parts have all the properties of the compact mineral: resistance to fire, extreme temperatures and constant traffic, bacteriological properties which prevent the spread of pathogens, high thermal bending capacity, low weight and low maintenance.
Krion is a next-generation solid surface with a 100% recyclable composition which can be reprocessed and used again. Its seamless joints create smooth and continuous surface areas without joins or irregularities, allowing limitless designs.
4. Queen Alia International Airport (Amman, Jordan)
Opened in 2013 under the supervision of the architecture firm Foster + Partners, honouring the country’s traditions and one of its most famous symbols: Bedouin tents which give shape to the roof’s domes. In response to Amman’s climate, where summer temperatures vary considerably from day to night, the building is mostly made of reinforced concrete, since the material’s high thermal mass provides passive environmental control.
The roof’s tiled canopy can be appreciated when flying over the building, and it includes a series of superficial concrete domes which extend out to provide shadow for the facade. Each dome is a modular unit which branches out from the support columns, like the leaves of a palm tree in the desert, flooding the vestibule with light through openings in the column joins. This leaf-style geometric design, inspired by traditional Islamic shapes, is applied to each ceiling with complex geometry.
5. Singapore International Airport
This airport – also known as Changi Airport – serves the city state of Singapore. It is one of the busiest Asian airports in terms of movement. The new extension opened to the public in April 2019, and it is already considered one of the best in the world. The reasons for this decision are because it looks like anything other than an airport, more like a mix between a shopping centre and an amusement park.
The 140,000 square metres it covers were designed by the architect Moshe Safdie, and its four terminals contain up to 350 shops, including some of the biggest luxury brands.
In addition to the JetQuay terminal, which is normally used by those travelling by private jet, and which houses showers and bedrooms to take a siesta, there is a classic aroma of orchid tea, designed specifically for the airport, which is part of its strategy for users to remember it as a special place.
For those with a lengthy stopover, this is definitely the best place to spend it, since entertainment is the airport’s raison d’être.
Changi has its own cinema, video game arcade and spas. It also has a four-storey slide, a garden with plants native to Singapore and another with over 100 species of cactus and plants from arid zones in Africa and America.
Another attraction is a 9-metre tall interactive installation where passengers can share photos and see them displayed on 64 screens measuring 42”. Across the four terminals there are also passageways featuring more than 10 kinetic artworks. One of the most famous is Kinetic rain, made up of over 1,600 bronze hanging droplets which move and form shapes like an aircraft, kite or dragon.
Another famous piece is A million times, a wall of 504 watches which move together to create hypnotising patterns. But without doubt, the jewel in the crown of this building is the new aptly named terminal Jewel, which is easily accessed by the Skytrain. It is a ten-storey building with an internal surface area of 137,000 square metres, which includes a hotel, 300 shops and restaurants, plus an impressive glass and steel dome with a 40-metre waterfall.
6. Heydar Aliyev International Airport (Baku, Azerbaijan)
The hospitality and warmth of an environment which people do not usually notice or to which they have no sentimental ties is the starting point for this airport project in Azerbaijan’s capital. A terminal opened in 2014, where the interior architecture and experimental design bear the hallmark of Autoban, the Istanbul-based design firm.
The modern interiors include all the distinctive elements of the firm’s multidisciplinary and innovative approach, tearing up the rulebook when it comes to the usual standards at traditional airports – which tend to make spaces and the user experience impersonal. Given that the design had to reflect Azerbaijani values and culture and its people’s personality, the resulting environments and spaces made people a core concern, putting their needs first. This includes 16 striking wooden cocoons, built using white oak veneer, which create a feeling of welcome and discovery, as well as spaces ideally suited to spending time with others or even enjoying some alone time. The custom furniture and lighting system challenge traditional standards at this type of facility, opting for natural and tactile materials such as wood, stone and cloth, and combining them with warm and soft lighting. The cocoons of various sizes, which accommodate a series of cafés, kiosks and other services, offer a blend of architecture and art which create an attractive and enigmatic landscape within this major transport centre, challenging the usual expectations of an airport’s environment.
7. Edinburgh Airport (Scotland)
With its new airport, the Scottish capital champions the next generation of VIP lounges. The remodel was the responsibility of the design firm Graven, which works on projects where the main purpose is creating welcoming surroundings. Its projects at Anfield Stadium’s VIP lounge in Liverpool, the central offices of the Royal Bank of Scotland in London or the 5-star Blythswood Square Hotel in Glasgow are a perfect example.
The new British Airways VIP lounge project launches a new concept which the airline has dubbed “Galleries”, an upgrade of classic VIP lounges where interior design and functionality play a key role. Designed in collaboration with Porcelanosa, the fittings were custom-made, including the reception desks, tables, catering areas and reception surface areas.
The materials used included Krion, a next-generation solid surface which can be recycled 100% and reprocessed and used again in the production cycle. Its texture is similar to natural stone, and it can be used to build seamless spaces with a uniform appearance. Its composition is strong and resistant to extreme temperatures, impacts, shocks and stains. Its heat resistance means it can come into contact with heat sources without damaging its appearance.
Ceramic tiles from the Cubica Silver and Filo Blanco collections were used on the walls. Both finishes work together with the entire space to make it sophisticated and elegant. The 700 square metre VIP lounge covers nearly twice the previous area, creating a more spacious and comfortable atmosphere for the amount of passengers visiting daily. Art also plays a very important role in this project, because Graven acquired books and artwork by young artists from the Edinburgh College of Art to exhibit it in the lounge, along with British Airways’ own art collection.
8. Logan International Airport (Boston, USA)
The Spanish architect Luis Vidal and his studio were selected in 2018 to remodel Terminal E of the Boston airport, the main route for European travellers to the US city. The key elements of the project include significant upgrades to the existing building, improvements to the check-in desks and the international arrivals process, as well as a new and unified passenger security check, airline VIP lounges, baggage systems, retail areas, and a new large multi-storey central lobby to improve the passenger experience. “Elegance and welcome are the two words which come to mind when I think of Boston. When we designed the Terminal E extension, we wanted these words to become part of its DNA”, explained Luis Vidal. The expansion project will include significant renovations to the existing international arrivals and the immigration and customs areas, by designing skylights and top lights which will maximise natural light and its efficiency.
The intuitive orientation, spatial clarity and excellent hospitality will transform the user experience. The iconic roof, designed based on the sun’s path, offers two north-facing skylights with two eyelash-style fairings which protect the inside of the terminal from direct sun exposure.
To the south, the roof gently caresses the facade to reveal a series of openings which overlook the Boston skyline, offering departing passengers a memorable final view of its bright horizon. With an emphasis on efficiency and sustainability, the terminal will aim to obtain the LEED certification developed by the US Green Construction Board for sustainable buildings.
- 1 An airport’s practical and aesthetic needs
- 1.1 1. Denver International Airport (USA)
- 1.2 2. Abu Dhabi International Airport (United Arab Emirates)
- 1.3 3. Rome-Fiumicino Airport (Rome, Italy)
- 1.4 4. Queen Alia International Airport (Amman, Jordan)
- 1.5 5. Singapore International Airport
- 1.6 6. Heydar Aliyev International Airport (Baku, Azerbaijan)
- 1.7 7. Edinburgh Airport (Scotland)
- 1.8 8. Logan International Airport (Boston, USA)