Rethinking the Airport Passenger Experience – The BaltiCloud Terminal

BaltiCloud-concourse view

Perspective view of arrivals concourse level with “cloud” EFTE roof structure above – Riga Terminal design concept for AirBaltic Airlines.  Rendering courtesy of Hartnessvision, in collaboration with XChange Architects

As we kick off the busy summer travel season, we were interested to read Vanity Fair architecture contributor and former New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger’s observations of the modern passenger experience in today’s airports.  In a CNN article, entitled “Airports where the architecture soars, ” he laments that there really is no “there” in many of today’s passenger terminals; these proverbial 21st Century global gateways that (in many cases) now fill the role formerly held by the grand urban rail stations in welcoming arriving visitors.

Mr. Goldberger noted:

Where they exist at airports, the more impressive spaces are usually located in the airports’ departure halls. Those passengers are rushing to clear security and catch flights and don’t have time to appreciate their space. The arrivals hall usually doesn’t inspire much.

For baggage access reasons and the sad reality that most arriving passengers are generally motivated to get as far away from the airport as possible, it is not all that unusual to find arrivals halls – with baggage claim devices and customs screening facilities – located on the very bottom and being fairly uninspiring spaces to greet travelers into a city.  Many new airport passenger terminals are reconsidering this paradigm, both at airports with a large proportion of travelers ending their journey at the airport as well as those with a significant population of passengers connecting to other flights where the arriving “gateway” experience and the immigration / customs clearance process really matters and may affect passenger decisions when selecting air travel alternatives.

BaltiCloud - downtown aerial

Airside aerial of the proposed “BaltiCloud” Terminal, evening view with downtown Riga in the background.

BaltiCloud-cloud study screen shot

Preliminary geometric studies of the EFTE “cloud” roof in 3D Studio MAX.  Screenshots courtesy of Hartnessvision LLC.

In a joint effort to develop a new terminal design concept in collaboration with Hartnessvision LLC, for a new passenger terminal in Riga, Latvia, for their primary air carrier, AirBaltic, we chose to literally invert the sectional arrangement of the arrivals and departures flows as well as the way we conceive the roof of the passenger terminal building.  We were intrigued by the possibilities of an EFTE plastic membrane in offering a virtually roof-less airport experience.  Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene, or EFTE, is a highly durable and tensile plastic membrane with a high range of temperature and climatic tolerance.  Made famous in the 2008 Water Cube pavillion in the Beijing Olympics, we believe very strongly in the possibilities of integrating this dynamic enclosure material to “dematerialize” the roof.

Our terminal design concept, which we refer to as the “BaltiCloud” –  a play on the Air Baltic identity and the notion of the building as a simple floating cloud – is characterized by 2 simple ideas of re-introducing passengers with the unique sensibilities of air travel:  first, the inversion of the arrivals (above) and departures (below) experience and second, the introduction of a simple, but multi-functional cloud roof serving to both eliminate the all-too-common dreary travel experience while using EFTE air pillows of varying opacity to serve as a way-finding device.

Without compromising functionality, safety, and operational excellence, we like to think that design is the glue that synthesizes all of the core elements that define successful, world-class transportation facilities.  These lines of enquiry provided us a vehicle to debate and rethink the airport passenger building type and most importantly, the potential re-imagination of the passenger air travel experience.

BaltiCloud-exploded axon

Exploded axonometric view of the proposed terminal facilities – Riga International Airport, Latvia

All photographs, images and drawings copyright Hartnessvision LLC and XChange Architects LLC, unless otherwise noted.

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