Compared with other branches of architecture and design, airport design poses a unique set of challenges. For one thing, the structure needs to be functionally ingenious, serving as a hub for thousands of passengers in transit. Rather than just going from A to B, these passengers need to be able to navigate a full alphabet of touchpoints – bag drop, security checks, passport control – before boarding their flight with minimal hassle.

In between, you want to incentivise them to spend time and money in the commercial facilities, which means borrowing elements from the best retail design. And you can’t just coast by on a few souvenir shops – as airports are coming to realise, these facilities are a critical source of revenue.

Then there’s the issue of what an airport represents. Since the building tends to serve as a visitor’s first impression of that city or country, there’s a lot at stake in getting it right, culturally and politically.

Terminal design, then, is a nuanced discipline, which extends far beyond creating an architecturally imposing structure. The best airport interiors pay as much attention to the specific details as they do to the overall layout.

More than mere practicality

As Peter Farmer, head of the UK transportation sector at Chapman Taylor, explains, the functional aspect of airport design is important. However, it’s just as important that the facilities are enjoyable.

“People travel for very different reasons, but all have similar human needs – they don’t want to be stressed by inefficient processes, and they desire a decent level of comfort and service,” he says. “Though each type of passenger might want to spend their dwell time differently, there are crossovers – business travellers still browse in shops, albeit maybe for different offers.”

He adds that, while an airport has to cater for a wide range of needs – not least passengers with restricted mobility or cognitive disabilities – the desire for a high-quality space is universal.

“We are often under pressure to ‘optimise’ areas that do not generate revenue, but it is often these touchpoints that influence a passenger’s experience,” he says. “A poor experience does not inspire loyalty or the propensity to dwell and spend. Spaces need to help to destress a passenger, both from a commercial and a well-being point of view.”

Chapman Taylor has completed a number of airport projects, including the commercial district at Heathrow Terminal 5 and a connector building between two terminals at Brussels Airport. At present, the firm is working on the terminal remodelling for Jersey Airport in the Channel Islands, which will involve the phased removal of the current arrivals building and the introduction of a new and refurbished extension. In all these projects, passenger friendliness is paramount.

“‘Passenger friendly’ can mean many things, but for me it is a place that is easily and intuitively navigated,” says Farmer. “Queues and stress, particularly at key processing points, are kept to a minimum, and everyone – whether a business traveller or a tourist – feels special and looked after.”

What this means in practice is that a passenger can relax before being bombarded with commercial offers. The space should be naturally readable, with well-designed signage and information, and welfare facilities should be clean and accessible.

Then there are the factors common to any public space. As with shopping malls, schools, office spaces, public art and parks, airports need to pay attention to human factors, or what might broadly be called the ‘architecture of well-being’.

“Passengers respond positively to daylight and views – transparency between the interior and exterior space can help to calm nerves and provide a visual focal point that can help take the passenger mentally away from the hustle and bustle of many airport environments,” says Farmer. “Biophilic design is a key tool in reducing stress – extensive greenery, water features, daylight, natural materials and even the use of LED screens to project images of the natural environment can all be used to help soothe nerves.”

5.5 km
The length of the six encapsulated, individually addressable LED strip lights in the Ribbon Wall at Istanbul New Airport.

These kinds of considerations are evident in the design for Jersey Airport. Here, an intuitive layout will make wayfinding easier, while extensive glazing provides views across the island and the use of natural light is maximised.

“Exposure to skylight increases the brain’s release of serotonin, which is associated with mood boosting and helping a person feel calm and focused,” explains Farmer. “We are introducing new mezzanines, which will bring passengers closer to the light sources, and we are also using the roof light as a key orientation and wayfinding element.”

He adds that the main lounge area will be styled as ‘The Jersey Lounge’, with plenty of wooden elements and soft furnishings. The idea is to offer a level of service comparable with an executive lounge.

“The aim for airport designers today is to create a brand that reflects the airports, the airlines and, most importantly, passengers’ values,” he explains. “Part of that will include creating a new ‘lounge’ environment – a safe, interesting, fun and comfortable space that people will choose to arrive at two or three hours before a flight.”

“People travel for very different reasons, but all have similar human needs – they don’t want to be stressed by inefficient processes, and they desire a decent level of comfort and service.”
Peter Farmer, Chapman Taylor

In short, airports are starting to function like destinations in their own right. This may entail a blurring between commercial and public spaces.

“While the department store might be struggling in the high street, airports and individual terminals will be challenged to adopt the model,” says Farmer.

Learn from innovation found in other industries

Kristian Gilroy, creative director and partner at Cinimod Studio, agrees that airport design is starting to take its cues from trends in the retail and restaurant spaces.

“The focus is increasingly on experience as opposed to simply footfall, seating capacity and stock,” he says. “Airports will continue to strive for a memorable visitor experience, as well as encouraging travellers to be comfortable spending more time there, whether to dine or shop.”

A cross-discipline practice specialising in interactive, lighting, architecture, art and sound design, Cinimod has designed a number of sculptural lighting installations at airports. These include Emergence for Caviar House & Prunier at Heathrow in London, and installations for Itsu at Heathrow and Stansted.

“Emergence is still one of the most eye-catching installations in the airport, with a kinetic lighting effect that takes inspiration from the movement of a school of fish underwater,” says Gilroy. “Emergence, as with the installation for Itsu, makes the passenger’s journey through the airport more engaging, stimulating and surprising, with beautiful and fascinating elements.”

Recently, Cinimod’s lighting team collaborated with Softroom Interior Design to deliver a new lighting scheme for Turkish Airlines’ lounges at Istanbul New Airport. Key to the design is the ‘Ribbon Wall’ – six 5.5km lines of dynamic light guiding the passenger journey through the lounges. Gilroy says this feature is unprecedented in the lighting business.

“The ribbon wall is a fil rouge that connects all of the lounges,” he explains. “The ribbon is visible from far away, creating a beautiful spectacle at the highest point of the lounges – the exclusive lounge. We worked with Softroom in order to make this architectural feature a kinetic element, adding six lines of encapsulated, individually addressable LED strip light. The lighting effect is a slow movement of glowing and pulsing that reflects the motion of flowing water.”

More broadly, Cinimod wanted to create a cosy ‘home away from home’ environment that would help passengers to relax.

“We prioritised the use of decorative lights and lighting integrated in the furniture, to make staying in the lounge more comfortable and relaxing,” says Gilroy.

It’s clear, then, that these subtler elements of airport design – often overlooked – are integral to the experience. All this said, design trends come and go, and passenger numbers are increasing all the time. An airport design needs to be able to accommodate change, keeping an eye not just on today’s passenger preferences, but also on what might happen tomorrow.

For instance, the commercial areas within Heathrow T5 were designed many years ago for a different era and marketplace. As a result of this, its commercial provision has changed a lot and the main terminal has become much busier.

“With the increasing focus on the need for curation, churn and change within these environments, flexibility is important,” says Farmer. “Therefore, definitive and fixed floor and ceiling patterns and features are becoming less common. At the same time, airports are very conscious of maintenance costs, requiring us to ensure solutions are robust and that we use as few materials and fittings as possible.”

While airport design is an undoubtedly complex typology, it is also one of the most interesting. It requires a real understanding of commercial factors, a city’s self-image and, most importantly, human psychology.

“Passengers come from many cultures, religions, identities and nationalities, as well as being of different ages and levels of abilities,” points out Farmer. “This diversity of characteristics needs to be carefully considered at the very outset of the design process.”