Skift Take

Vidal paints a picture of airports' future that is impossible to resist, but authorities will need to see the benefits in improving their hubs for the 21st century and beyond in order for real transformation to take place.

Architect and designer Luis Vidal is the brains behind Heathrow Airport‘s new Terminal 2 opening this June.

The terminal was designed to reduce anxiety in flyers the moment they arrive, built to bring in natural light and reduce energy waste, and conceived with several high ideals in mind.

Vidal’s goal is turn airports into beautiful representations of the cities they are based in and provide passengers with a pleasant, enjoyable experience.

His firm’s mission is to make airports, and all projects they they work on, economically, environmentally, and socially responsible. Vidal + Architects has worked on more than ten airport projects and is currently bidding on projects in Mexico, Chile, and Peru.

We spoke with Vidal earlier this week about how airports can evolve to better cater to travelers.

Skift: Airports are becoming destinations that represent the cities they are located in. Is this something you think about when designing an airport terminal?

Luis Vidal: I design airports around destinations. I think they are gateways into countries. They are the first and last image that people carry with them. In many instances, airports are the only image of a city that people carry with them because they are traveling and don’t get to go to the city. They [airport terminals] are very important in terms of representing a destination.

When we design airports, we always have the passenger first in mind. And we ensure that the passengers’ experience is the best by reducing passenger unclarity and making the terminal a destination in and of itself so that people really want to get there and spend time at the terminal before traveling.

Skift: Can you tell me about the creative process of designing an airport terminal? How do you take that concept of putting the passenger first and having it be a better experience for them and execute on it?

Vidal: We use a number of values  when we design a terminal to make sure the experience is enriching. For example, we use things like intuitive wayfinding so travelers can move around the terminal no matter which language they speak. They can really understand what’s going on and what the next passenger process is. For example, in the case of Terminal 2, the roof plays a very important part in the design. The roof has three waves, which are embracing the three main functions of the terminal.

Under the first vault, you have check-in. Under the second wave, you are in security. And once you are out of security, the next wave takes you to boarding.

Another thing we use is natural light. The roof, those three waves, is following an 18-meter model. Every 18 meters, those three curves tilt to the north in order to allow natural light to come in through the roof. The terminal is flooded with natural light, which is coming in and bouncing off the perforations of the roof.

The third element, which is also very important when designing an airport, is acoustics. So we’ve talked about intuitive wayfinding, natural light, and now acoustics. This white canvas becomes a very good acoustic trap. The noise is going up, getting trapped in the roof, and not coming back down.

Skift: How did you combine these design elements and the goal of creating an environmentally friendly airport? What impact did the two have on one another?

Vidal: This terminal is the first BREEAM-certified airport in the world. (BREEAM is the UK equivalent of the U.S.’s LEED environmental certification.) We reduced the amount of CO2 emissions that this building produces by 40 percent and we’ve done that with a number of factors.

For example, the quality of light coming in from the north is most beneficial to the space because it is the most continuous and a unified quality kind of light. By having all the light come in from the north, we avoid any radiation coming into the building, which radically reduces the amount of cooling needed in the building.

We have a huge array of things that are very unusual in a terminal building to help make this building more responsible. I say responsible because I always say that we have to practice responsibility. People say the word sustainability, which I think is out of fashion and bad to use. I think we will be economically, socially, and environmentally responsible.

Skift: Is this project unique for its focus on energy efficiency, or is this something you incorporate into all of your design projects?

Vidal: I always say it is a DNA issue. If being responsible is part of our DNA then obviously every project we work on has those things from the outset. You can not apply lipstick to a gorilla and pretend it’s not a gorilla. When we’re designing a building or doing a master plan or deciding on a product, whatever we’re doing, we’re always thinking about how we can be responsible.

Skift: How do you design an airport so that it puts passengers first? Is there anything about passenger behavior that you find difficult to cater to via design?

Vidal: I’m a frequent passenger and I always enjoy observing other passengers when they travel. There are a lot of different patterns and types of passengers, but there’s one thing that’s a common denominator to all of them. They all feel, in one way or another, anxiety.

Analyzing the passenger is important to me. And through all of these years I’ve come to the conclusion that passenger anxiety is at its peak when you are home right before you travel. That anxiety drops somewhat when you get to the airport. You may have received your boarding card or dropped your bag, but it’s still pretty high.

It will drop again once you go through security. Once you’ve taken your shoes and your belt and all those things out, which is always a harassment and I strongly believe that should change in the future. Anyway, once you’ve come through security and you’ve put your shoes and your belt back on, your level of anxiety is reduced. It’s not really reduced to its lowest level until you can visually locate your boarding gate and how long it will take you to get there.

At that moment is when passengers really can relax and can enjoy the moment of being in that environment. That’s where we come into play and where we can make it so those places, all those processes you have gone through are as enjoyable as possible with natural light, wayfindng, color, texture, and acoustics.

Skift: How has the architecture of airports evolved over time to cater to today’s passengers?

Vidal: Let me go back a little bit. Airports, in their origin, were just very small buildings that you would up to and walk through to the plane. Throughout the years, they evolved into two-level terminals, but again very straightforward buildings, just processing passengers.

Then they became shopping malls. Shopping malls where planes would eventually take off from but really passengers were concealed, made to hang around with no natural light and no information about their gates. Only about 27 minutes before they left would they be told where the gate. This proved to work against the airports because people reject that type of treatment. People want to know where the gates are, people reject being forced to stay in a confined space, and in the end it puts them off.

What we’re working on now is airports as destinations where we apply all those values to reduce passenger anxiety and at the same time where we can allow people to visually locate the boarding gate as soon as possible. We have the right balance between retail, leisure, and amenities so that people don’t feel forced to buy and they can enjoy the place.

Skift: What other transportation projects do you look to as role models?

Vidal: I would say there is a huge need for role models worldwide. For the last 30 years, there has been very little improvement and upgrade on airports. And it is something that authorities are beginning to notice is required.

Heathrow is the perfect example. Heathrow is the number one airport in the world for international travel, number three for passenger numbers, and for many years it was voted as the worst airport in the world. They realized that and have spent tremendous amounts of money upgrading their terminals to change that perception. T5 opened, T2 is opening in June, and that will have a huge impact on people’s memories and will change their perception.

The United States is another good example. All of its airport infrastructure is so run down. There’s nothing for passengers, the city, its image, retail, or the experience. All that has to change.

The problem with U.S. airports is that they are normally locally owned, that means their agenda is run by the political agenda of the mayor or authority that is usually running for four-year positions. When you are looking at this type of infrastructure, and these types of projects, you need a longer vision than four years. My guess is that is why they’ve fallen behind so much. They’ve been money-making machines, a milking cow, but there’s no money being put back into them.

Skift: You are currently working on the design of the new Spaceport Colorado project. How do you approach a concept as new as this?

Vidal: It is very much a step forward in trying to avoid preconceived ideas and look at the future with a very fresh eye. Although the technology will be here in 5 to ten years, space travel will only be available for the very few that have sufficient money to pay for it. So thinking about these terminals serving just a few at the beginning, we’re trying to build on them and make them very approachable for everyone.

We want to make people aware that they exist and we want to encourage people to come up to them. We want to make sure that  people can engage with crew and passengers, so that they can talk to them and understand the experience. We want to recreate balconies as observation decks like those available at the original airports where people would go and see flights takeoff and land.

It’s basically for people to go see, train, observe and in a way break the mystery making space travel more accessible for everyone.


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Tags: design, heathrow, interviews, skiftq&a

Photo credit: A lady waits with a bouquet of flowers in the International Arrivals concourse at Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5A. Heathrow Airport

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