Reach for the sky

19 June 2019

The inauguration of the new Istanbul Airport took place on 29 October, the country’s ‘Republic Day’, after a construction project that took 42 months to complete the largest single-roof airport in the world. The site covers 41km², but this will increase to 76km2 over coming years, making the aviation mega hub bigger than the whole of Manhattan Island (59km2). At the ribbon cutting, President Erdogan reportedly said that his country will become the “most important transit location on the north-south, east-west axes, connecting 60 countries and $20-trillion economies”.

With a price tag of $11 billion, this private-public partnership can have nothing other than seismic ambitions. Located in the Arnavutköy district near the Black Sea – 40 minutes’ drive north of the city centre, on the European side (with a new metro line set to be installed by 2020) – the airport is set to become a gateway to 350 destinations, and will be big enough to serve 90 million passengers a year during its first phase. Once all four phases have been completed in 2028, this will increase to 200 million. In 2018, the world’s busiest airport was Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International, with just over 100 million passengers a year.

To get things started, the new airport has two parallel runways measuring 3,750 and 4,100m, and a torch-like ATC tower, inspired by the flowing forms of the country’s national flower, the tulip. It was designed by Italian design company Pininfarina and AECOM, after they won the bid ahead of competition from Moshe Safdie and Zaha Hadid Architects. Phases two and three are scheduled for 2021 and 2022, when two more ATC towers and another two runways will be added. Phase four will see the addition of the fifth and sixth runways, plus a new satellite terminal – making three terminals in all. In total, the airport will be able to accommodate 500 aircraft at any one time, and the surrounding grounds will host parks, mosques, conference centres and hotels.

Viewed from above, the 1.4km2 terminal building is shaped like a capital ‘H’ pinched in the middle, with aircraft piers providing the stems. At its heart is an enormous central hall, with two and a half levels for arrivals and departures. Inside, there are 228 passport desks and the planet’s biggest duty-free retail complex, covering 5.5km2.

Master planners

Leading the concept design of the airport was global architectural firm Grimshaw Architects, alongside Nordic – Office of Architecture and London studio Haptic Architects. Together, the team was responsible for the concept design of Terminal One, as well as initial designs for the forthcoming Terminal Two and an airside satellite concourse. The design of Terminal One was developed by Scott Brownrigg, which was also responsible for the interior design concept, and worked with local architectural delivery teams including Fonksiyon Mimarlik, Turgut Alton Mimarlik, and Kiklop Design and Engineering.

Andrew Thomas, a partner at Grimshaw, describes what makes the new Istanbul Airport development unique. “In terms of its scale, it is absolutely unprecedented,” he says. “[But] while it’s grand, we have really sought to design it to a human scale, with intuitive wayfinding and a rich variety of experiences that will make it an enjoyable place for people to use and spend time in.”

The result sports majestic vaulted ceilings, through which daylight is filtered via dozens of skylights. Long, smooth-moving walkways take people past floorto- ceiling glass windows, and for those looking for a breather, there is a beautiful open-air forecourt with greenery and al fresco seating under winglike canopies. Thomas explains how the architects harnessed light to improve well-being. “Sunlight within a terminal building provides a connection to the outside world and brings the internal spaces to life throughout the day. The slatted ceiling surface provides control of direct sunlight to avoid glare, while casting rich patterns of light inside the terminal.”

In terms of inspiration for the overall design concept, Tomas Stokke, director at Haptic Architects, says the team looked to the city and its variety of Ottoman monuments. “The new airport is conceived as a grand gateway to Turkey that is absolutely and unmistakably of its time and place,” he says. “Istanbul is a vibrant and youthful city, with the most wonderful architectural tradition expressed in its spectacular historic buildings, most notably the great work of the classical Turkish architect, Mimar Sinan [who designed the Suleiman Mosque, for example, in the 1500s]. These techniques of light, pattern, texture and colour [found in the new airport] are deeply influenced by the traditional art and architecture of Turkey.”

Throw out the rulebook

Pressed on some of the biggest challenges the architects faced in designing the terminal, Ingrid Motzfeldt, partner at Nordic – Office of Architecture, explains, “We could see that at this scale, and with this amount of people, the established ‘rules’ of airport design needed to be replaced with new modes of thinking. We had to constantly test and re-evaluate what would work for a ‘normal’ airport to see if it was at all applicable at this scale.”

Thomas agrees: “It was critical that we developed design proposals that were simple and modular to build in order to support rapid construction. The steel structure and the roof are very simple and quick to build, while the architectural quality is primarily achieved through the form and rhythm of the vaulted ceilings and the quality of natural light. Another concern was how we could create a terminal to serve such a huge volume of passengers that would allow all of those people to navigate simply, within acceptable walking distances and with minimum level changes.”

Grimshaw has a long history of airport commissions, including Pulkovo in St Petersburg, London Heathrow and Zurich. Comparisons aren’t easy but there are common themes that are fundamental to the studio’s approach. “It can be seen as part of an evolution of certain key ideas and qualities that we always seek to embody in our projects: we want our terminals to be clear, well ordered and easily understood by the people that will use them,” Thomas says. “While they are big buildings, they should be designed with the experience of the individual user in mind, allowing for moments within the journey that offer respite and joy.”

We could see that at this scale, and with this amount of people, the established ‘rules’ of airport design needed to be replaced with new modes of thinking. We had to constantly test and re-evaluate what would work for a ‘normal’ airport to see if it was at all applicable at this scale.
– Ingrid Motzfeldt, Nordic – Office of Architecture

He adds, “Plentiful natural light and warm materials are employed to create positive environments for people, and we treat the experience of arriving passengers to be of equal importance to that of those departing. The opportunity to spend time relaxing within a pleasant environment that offers a diverse range of concessions and other amenities can create a memorable experience and a positive start to a passenger’s journey. For the airport operator, the revenue provided by these facilities is, of course, a fundamental part of their business plan. Finally, we use modular and loose-fit structures to accommodate the inevitable change that the building will face in its lifetime.”

While Istanbul may not have the hiking trails and waterfalls found in Singapore Changi’s forthcoming Jewel terminal, there is no doubt that Istanbul Airport is part of a growing trend for turning airports into aesthetically and spiritually uplifting public spaces that go beyond function. It is a place people will, hopefully, want to spend time in rather than rushing from the self-check-in kiosk to the gate.

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