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Gensler’s Keith Thompson and Terence Young and Heerim’s Byungkoo Lee tell us more about the concepts behind the design of Incheon International Airport’s impressive new Terminal 2.

As you would expect from an airport whose name is synonymous with top quality customer service, Incheon International Airport wanted its new Terminal 2 to be something special in terms of its look, feel, facilities, services offered and ease of use.

High requirements indeed, but if the hugely positive feedback from passengers in the few months since Terminal 2 opened for business on January 18 is anything to go by, Incheon’s new high-tech facility is already proving popular with passengers.

With 37 contact gates and 32 remote positions in Phase 1, the terminal is the airport’s first major expansion project in 17 years and boasts a number of ‘smart technology’ features such as 62 self-check-in desks, self-bag drop and facial recognition systems that allow automated immigration processing.

Initially equipped to handle 18 million passengers per annum, the 368,000sqm complex has its own airside hotel, sense-of-place art work and other features that include an observation deck, napping rooms, kids play areas and others showcasing the best in South Korean culture.

The design process

The airport announced a design competition for Terminal 2 on December 27, 2010, and Gensler was asked to join the Korean powerhouse Heerim as the collaborating design architect in what became the Heerim–Mooyoung–Gensler– Yungdo (HMGY) consortium.

Working closely with Heerim, Gensler and Heerim collaborated on the design work that formed the basis of the design submittal. While the consortium partners were involved throughout, other key consultants included BNP (baggage), Hugh Dutton (curtainwall), Lea+Elliott (APM) and Landrum & Brown, SAP group (concession planning).

The design competition attracted entries from seven internationally recognised architectural teams, and after each was evaluated by the jury, the HMGY team prevailed.

Winning the competition, the HMGY team started the one-year basic design phase on July 25, 2011, with the goal of completing the project in time for the 2018 Winter Olympics at PyeongChang.

Concepts and inspiration

We evaluated a variety of organisational concepts starting with some from an earlier ‘ideas competition’ and arrived at the ‘bent H’ layout, which offers the best balance between the needs of originating and connecting passengers while simultaneously meeting all the programme requirements.

The inspiration behind the design was that of the phoenix, which is both a creature in Korean mythology and an indirect reference to reunification which remains a strong sentiment among most Koreans.

Beyond that the design is a blend between looking into the future and looking to the past. The design of the passenger journey is an interpretation of a passenger walking through a traditional Korean painting. At the highest level is the cloud or mountain layer, the middle is the forest and village layer, and the lower levels represent a textured rocky coastline.

Each layer in the building has a corresponding material colour and texture to reflect this painted inspiration. The design applies the patterns and local stone, wood and colours to create an authentic journey through Korea.



Gensler’s role meant asking the question: What is the airport of the future? What does it mean for the region and the country and how do we see the journey changing into the next decade?

The client, Incheon International Airport Corporation (IIAC), asked us to build upon the repeated success and awards of Incheon T1, and propel the passenger experience level to an even higher trajectory.

We looked at everything from traditional mythology, painting and textiles to get inspiration while leveraging the innovations that Korean technology companies are pioneering. Gensler also led the design of the exterior envelope, creating a skin that maximises natural daylight.

Challenges and opportunities

One early hurdle we faced during the competition was fitting all the required aircraft including contact gates and remote stands on site while providing short walking distances between gates.

With that solved, the next challenge came just after 30% of the basic design was submitted. The client, IIAC, requested a significant increase in the number of check-in positions, a change in the curvature of the headhouse, and relocation of the two security checkpoints to a more central location to aid in consolidation of some of the specialty retail offerings.

In addition, the phasing of the programme meant that the north concourses and portions of the headhouse were to be deferred until a later date, yet the initial concept presumed a unified architecture. This required the headhouse to accommodate future expansion with a minimum of disruptions and maintain the architectural concept at Phase 1.

The passenger experience

The passenger experience is a fully integrated journey that includes retail and dining, educational moments as well as art and technology showcases.

During the design phase we identified the need for a variety of budgets and experiences at the airport: fast-serve and budget retail as well as fine dining and luxury retailers including Prada and Louis Vuitton.

The outcome of our design studies was a vibrant boutique avenue as a venue for international boutique fashion houses and fine dining cafes overlooking ‘the avenue’ once a passenger passed through security.

Large triangular gardens serve passengers and staff seeking a quiet place to relax and unwind and possibly enjoy a meal in view of the garden. The dining terrace includes a mix of high-end and mid-range priced food and retail serving western and Asian foods.

Further out from the gates, where impulse purchases are more likely, are smaller convenience boutiques, fast-serve food and beverage options. These target tenants were planned in the early design phase, the actual selection of retail partnerships rest with the airport’s revenue development group and they were ultimately responsible for leasing a mix of retail, food and beverage.


Two particularly unique areas stand out as innovative. The first is landside access across the airside to an observation deck via an internal bridge spanning the airside retail district. This space serves two functions: to allow non-passengers to view the operational airfield and post security activity in the concourse, and to provide educational entertainment.

The gallery space showcases a model of the plans for the entire Incheon airport complex, a children’s play zone, an educational display showing the baggage system, a VR ride that takes the viewer through the baggage system, and a series of dioramas dramatising stories from staff about the history of Incheon airport.

This space becomes a gathering place to learn about the past and future of the airport and feel the size of the community of travellers, staff and airlines.

The second stand out experience is the integration of art throughout the building. Moments such as the three-story vertical core with the Korean alphabet; the migrating birds leading travellers to the observation deck; the sculptural information desks; and the reflective globes in the garden create an energy of curiosity and wonderment. Kids stop and play, people take selfies, and workers and staff find a place to recharge. 

About the authors

Keith Thompson is Gensler’s firmwide aviation and transportation practice area leader and Terence Young is a design director with the company. Byungkoo Lee is an executive vice president with Heerim.


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