An airport often serves as the first and last point of contact with a city, yet most travellers have little to say about its locale. However, that thinking has changed. Some of the most ambitious projects now underway are airport terminals, designed to reflect the aspirations of a cosmopolitan capital or act as beacons of new prosperity.
The biomorphically shaped Terminal 3 at Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport (by Studio Fuksas) and the sprawling Terminal 2 of Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai (by global firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill) are just two examples that scale new aesthetic heights. Pulkovo Airport St. Petersburg, located 23 kilometres outside the historic city, is the latest statement-making terminal to open, and it is one of Russia’s busiest. Designed by Grimshaw Architects, the two-level airport is now the point of arrival and departure for an estimated 12 million passengers annually.
To give a sense of the city visitors are about to experience, a stunning ceiling, folded like origami and clad in tessellated panels of golden metal, defines the soaring interior from end to end. According to managing partner Mark Middleton, who worked on the project since his London firm won the competition in 2007, the design team initially spent time roaming St. Petersburg to pinpoint what makes the city unique. They noted the gilded domes and church spires that cast an unmistakable late-afternoon glow, and Middleton says their observations informed the project.
The ceiling, an opulent affair made up of 18-metre linear bays with pitched skylights running lengthwise between them, captures and refracts light, funnelling natural illumination into the lower level even in the dead of winter. Externally, the roof is a different structure. The 50,000-square-metre expanse is flat, except for the raised skylights, and it bears the weight of heavy snowfalls while preventing uneven loads caused by drifting.
From the start, the architects considered the terminal as a place that could double as a new kind of civic space for the local citizenry. “Airports are usually designed around planes,” says Middleton, “not people. We wanted to do the reverse.” To their delight, they discovered that Russians are already inclined to spend time in airports, whether they are travelling or not: students go there to study, and families visit to dine at the restaurants. Pulkovo’s terminal is not just a place to catch a flight; it is also integral to the city’s social master plan.