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Robbie Gill, managing director of The Design Solution, explains why he believes that every airport needs to express a ‘sense of place’.

If you want to grab the attention of any busy airport manager, the words ‘non-aeronautical revenue’ will usually do the trick, especially when combined with the promise of new, smarter and more effective ways to drive growth.

In my opinion, too many terminals suffer from an approach where they all look the same. International style ‘white elegant architecture’ with the same brands repeated across the globe.  

To grab a passenger, you have to be different, open their eyes and minds, create an emotional experience as well as a practical one and a relevant prompt to jump on social media and say positive things about their experience.

That revenue dream is increasingly associated with the concept of ‘sense of place’. It has no clear definition in the airport world yet has lucid potential to support the passenger’s airport experience and drive revenue. 

Academics, including geographers, anthropologists and sociologists, present a range of definitions and we all have an instinctive grasp of what the term means. However, for shared clarity, I like the summary developed by a geographer, Yi-Fu Tuan, who suggests that it is “the affective bond between people and place or setting”. 

At heart, the passenger journey is a physical and emotional interaction with the airport. Absolutely every element of the airport journey – from the smoothness of drop-off to the air quality in the lounges – is assessed.  

Airports are still commonly perceived by many travellers as ‘non-places’ that are, at best, a necessary stage in the journey of getting to where they actually want to be.  The challenge of ‘sense of place’ is to persuade them that, right now, this airport is actually a good place to be.

The key point is that absolutely every aspect of the airport journey, no matter how seemingly small, plays an influence on the passenger mindset and on their perception of sense of place. Getting the ‘big’ issues consistently right – access, queue management, security times, wayfinding etc – has to be complemented by getting the seemingly ‘small’ issues right, too.

The concept of ‘sense of place’ has developed an extraordinary momentum, featuring in almost every airport announcement of a new or planned development, particularly as a flagship element in any modern airport design, such as the much-anticipated Midfield Terminal at Abu Dhabi International Airport, for example.

Indeed, the project has set new benchmarks in everything from the ambition in the initial RFP process to the retail and F&B experiences, particularly in its deeply embedded focus on ‘local’ input, passionately emphasised not on ‘passengers’ but on ‘the guest experience’.  

Distinctly local elements contribute strongly to the expression of the terminal’s sense of place, from the character of the architecture of the terminal building to how retailers and brands invoke the location in their offer.


Local ingredients

As an architect, my perspective is that sense of place begins with creating exciting space that also delivers operational and commercial efficiency. The ideal stage to project a location’s sense of place is a balanced mix of local ingredients – such as Xian Xianyang International Airport’s eight giant lanterns or Heathrow’s use of the iconic London Taxi in Terminal 2 – alongside compelling shopping, enticing restaurants and cafés.

Talking about sense of place at Xian Xianyang’s general manager and chief operations officer, Wolfgang Weil, says: “Our eight huge contemporary lanterns are marvellous ambassadors of Xi’an’s cultural heritage and for our airport. 

“Together with the shop surrounds and many other great details, they perfectly reflect our vision of blending Xi’an’s great history with its modern ambition.

“The sense of place design underlines our strategy of Xi’an – ‘where history meets future’ and the installations at XIA Terminal 3 made this facility unique. We receive lots of positive comments, especially from our international passengers who enjoy this unique atmosphere.”

Elsewhere, I believe that putting a diverse portfolio of local favourite ‘hero’ brands in the F&B offer has helped Copenhagen Airport to become repeat winners of the industry’s FAB award for ‘Best Airport F&B’.   

Toronto Pearson has the ‘Tastefully Canadian’ concept store incorporating an intriguing range of local artisan producers, from ice wines to artisan biscuits and maple syrup, providing sights, sounds, tastes and textures that enhance the sense of place through a distinctly local dynamic.


The wow factor

At Istanbul, İGA Havalimanı İşletmesi AŞ (IGA) planning for the city’s new €10.2 billion airport, scheduled to be the world’s largest airport under a single roof, is due to open in 2018 with a development capacity of more than 150 million passengers. 

However, the project isn’t simply about size as IGA states that the airport “will set new standards in operational and service quality – and a new benchmark for travel”. 

With a design that aims to resemble the flow of the Bosphorus, and with a firm emphasis on local products and artisans, the commercial heart of Istanbul New Airport will take travellers on a journey through one of Europe’s greatest cities. 

The airport’s emphasis on customer service and local inputs, including a traditional bazaar concept, will help to transmit a powerful sense of place that reflects the city’s unique personality.  

Unifree Duty Free are taking what appears to be a challenging and pioneering path but, in fact, it’s also very natural. By that I mean that they are thinking local and fully exploiting their unique local resources – which range from Turkish culture, style, brands and food to Unifree’s own brand qualities. 

The creation of Istanbul’s unique ‘sense of place’ will be brought to life with an exciting F&B offer from the region’s wonderful cuisine.


Art attack

‘Local’ elements are available to every airport and so, by definition, can help create a unique experience, making a very special contribution to sense of place, so it is crucial that each airport fully exploits its local strengths.   

However, commercial realities mean that global icon brands dominate travel retail – driving the majority of retail revenue – but they can also make a powerful contribution to sense of place, as they have been challenged to do in Abu Dhabi and Istanbul.

Sense of place works powerfully, outside of the architectural and the commercial. When it comes to airport-based artistic expression in sense of place, India is a front-runner. At Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport T2, owner GVK – driven by the artistic passion of vice chairman, Sanjay Reddy – has developed an extraordinary sense of place through the huge scale and quality of its constantly evolving artistic installations. The centrepiece being ‘Jaya He’, a gigantic art wall four floors high and stretching of over three kilometres!

In creating this mesmerising series of museum-quality displays throughout the terminal, incorporating historic and contemporary themes, over 7,000 artefacts were sourced from across India, many of which were meticulously restored. 

The display themes celebrate many aspects of Indian culture, from ‘India Seamless’, depicting the myths, histories and popular culture of the regions, to ‘India Global’, celebrating the nation’s contemporary urbanscapes and lifestyles.  

Commenting on the airport’s sense of place vision, Reddy says: “We used the peacock feather as the design inspiration for the architecture of Terminal 2. Further, we implemented a three kilometre long art programme called ‘Jaya He’ which showcases art from every single region of India. 

“The purpose of this design strategy was not only to showcase India’s beauty to the world but also to remind Indians, especially the next generation, about the beauty that lies within our country.

“Today when travellers pass through T2, we hope that they will be impressed with what India can offer and take back a small part of it with them. We hope that this would also influence Indians to bring Indian design into their life in whatever shape or form. We also believe that T2 will influence all new airports globally to bring the sense of place into the centre stage of their design strategy.”

There is absolutely no doubt in the traveller’s mind about their location when they are in this extraordinary building and, once seen, it is never forgotten.

Another Indian gateway to capture sense of space in all its glory is Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, where arriving passengers in Terminal 3 are greeted by a stunning ‘welcome wall’ devised for GMR Group by Indian industrial design firm Incubis Consultants.

Its scale is designed to give the terminal an authentic Indian context, infused with Indian values.

The sculpture’s mudras (hand gestures) are adapted from Indian classical dance, and are also used in yoga, making them instantly identifiable with the location. 

The gestures were carefully adapted to express an open ended symbolism and avoid the potential pitfalls of being perceived as a religious symbol.

The wall runs the length of the ‘canyon’, extending from the roof to the arrival level on the ground floor, and represents a transition for departing travellers as they leave the security area for the engaging lounge experience. 

The canyon wall display incorporates an amazing 675 discs mounted on a cast aluminum structure with a series of hands, each weighing 150kg, performing a series of nine gestures that traditionally express emotions and aspirations, including themes of travel/journeys, safety from harm, the act of giving etc.

As the major gateways to cities and countries, airports have a duty – and an incredible opportunity – to present an authentic and memorable sense of place.  

Delivered well it’s a powerful influencer on an enjoyable and satisfying passenger experience; which in turn helps drive non-aeronautical revenue. That’s why, on the bottom line, the concept of sense of place should grab the attention of every airport manager.


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