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No.6: Stansted Airport

issue 34 Feb / Mar 2007

Sharon Stammers continues her worldwind tour (with new baby in tow), exploring the best architecture that is built with light. Here, Jeff Shaw, Associate at Arup Lighting, puts forward his entry.

Stansted Airport opened in 1991 after winning the 1990 Mies van der Rohe Award for European Architecture for Foster and Partners. It is currently the fourth busiest airport in the UK. It is located in Essex and in 2005 it handled 22 million passengers.
The terminal building has often been compared to the design of new Tesco stores but at the time challenged all the accepted rules of airport design. The main design concept derived from Fosters own love of flying. (He would arrive at site stress free in his own helicopter) and the simplicity of early airports. It went back to the roots of modern air travel when early airport terminals were very simple: on one side there was a road for arriving and on the other a field where aircraft landed and you departed. The progression from landside to airside was a simple walk through the terminal to your plane, which was always in view. In contrast to most contemporary airports, there were no orientation problems. Despite the view no longer being completely open and unobstructed, movement through the building is still simple and direct and through a spacious volume. Stansted has none of the level changes that disfigure and confuse most airports. Passengers proceed in a fluid movement from arriving to the check-in area, passport control and on to the departure lounges, where they can see the planes.
The airport consists of one terminal, a single storey building with three boarding piers. The building features a “floating” lightweight pvc roof, 15m above passenger heads and supported by a grid of 36 service trees. The base of each tree structure is a “utility pillar”, which provides indirect uplighting and is the location for air-conditioning and water, telecommunications, and electrical outlets leaving the concourse space completely free of pipes and ducts.
The concourse is entirely day lit on all but the most overcast of days. The constantly changing daylight continually alters the look of the interior and also has significant energy and economic advantages. The white pvc roof filters daylight through to the grey terrazzo floor and reflects back all the interior light.
In 2003 the Government gave its backing for massive expansion of air travel in the UK. It supported the construction of a second runway by 2012. This would allow Stansted to handle more passengers than Heathrow does today. At maximum capacity, the expanded airport could process 80 million passengers per annum and a significant proportion of the UK’s freight traffic.

“My appreciation of Stansted as a new generation of airport building has remained with me since designing my own terminal in the final year of university. But I loathe actually using the airport because many of the initial design principals have been compromised and its location means that it often takes me longer to get home from the airport than the flight took.
Foster’s concept was based on two main principals; that the path from land to air should be clear and that the drama of air travel should be celebrated.
The wide open expanse of the interior is reminiscent of the drama of large-volumed railway terminals, as is the use of daylight. The intention was that as you entered the airport, you could see all the way through to airside to the plane you were departing on through the opposite facade. The view was made more panoramic by having top parts of the side facades with clear glazing so the sky was visible on all sides. Unfortunately, perhaps Foster’s vision was too ambitious. Immigration insisted on installing opaque screens between landside and airside, which compromised the view through the terminal. (Though originally this opaque screening was only at immigration so only those arriving were affected). Today, the increasing security requirements and growth of the retail units have completely blocked the open view and split the space in half.
But the daylight remains, as does the simplicity of the airport’s design. The roof still expands across the whole building and the use of a white finish makes the building feel bright and expansive. In terms of daylight - I like the fact that it is used throughout; many airports just have specific daylit areas in atrium-type spaces to breaking up the monotony of the drab fluorescent-lit concourses. The regular array of skylights provides a good, low-glare source of daylight. Uplighting the roof at night creates a bright, open feel to the space thus continuing to celebrate the volume.”

Jeff Shaw, Associate, Arup Lighting


Stansted Airport


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