Trains and boats and planes: waving goodbye to terminal boredom

Monday 19 May 2014

WAN looks at how today's major transport hubs are aiming to become dazzling destinations in their own right

There's no question that a new generation of transport interchanges is emerging. Popular with architects, press, and public alike are Singapore's Changi Airport T3 with its butterfly garden, cinema and four-storey fun slide, and London's majestic St Pancras International and Kings Cross train stations with their buzzing public realm.

Other firm favourites include Amsterdam's Schipol Airport - complete with museum and library - and Beijing Airport with its ‘global kitchen' of 70-plus food outlets. And let's not forget ocean-going transport. The wonderful Kai Tak Cruise Terminal in Hong Kong is certainly a place to linger, with its huge roof gardens designed to encourage people to picnic and enjoy the outdoors.

Obviously, uplifting architecture is central to success, but what else makes a truly great transport hub? And how can architects go about successfully creating the kind of experience that makes people want to spend their time - and money - above and beyond the mere mechanics of embarking or disembarking? What turns them into destinations in their own right?

These will be some of the hot topics on the table at WAD14, the global summit for architecture, in Shanghai this November. However, the debate starts here. A recent high-profile example of a hub which has tried to push the boundaries and create an exceptional passenger experience is that of soon-to-open Terminal 2 at London Heathrow.

T2 has been designed by Spanish architect, Luis Vidal. His architectural statement claims that "Terminal 2 establishes a sense of place, so that passengers will see their time at the airport as integral to their stay". Among the attractions will be a restaurant run by Heston Blumenthal, an airside branch of John Lewis, personal shoppers, and a massive work of public art by Richard Wilson entitled ‘Slipstream'.

However, following a press preview of the new terminal, the press seemed to damn it with faint praise. The UK's Financial Times headline reads, "The new Heathrow is almost world-class" - ouch. And worse, The Guardian newspaper describes it as "more boring than soaring". To be fair, there's only so much an architect can do within budget constraints. Perhaps operators need to invest more in order to create a truly vibrant gathering place?

Or perhaps they need to invest differently. We spoke to Founding Partner of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, Mike Davies who explains, "An important distinction is between landside and airside, or public and ticketed. It's a key definer of how much of a great space you can make. At airports, once you're airside there are lots of facilities - leisure, amenities, retail therapy, etc - which makes it interesting, and it's all about the captive audience. Ironically, landside, it's fairly barren so people don't tend to dwell.

"If you then look at stations, as opposed to airports, people dwell longer landside and therefore you have more retail facilities and vice versa. St Pancras is a good example, and at Kings Cross landside retail is flourishing. So I think success is related to how ingeniously you can draw the line between areas where you must have a ticket or not."

Mike also points out that rail terminals tend to be in town, which makes it easier for them to function as a community space. He also stresses the importance of creating grand spaces that lift the spirit and foster a sense of public space. He cites St Pancras as a fine example, also Heathrow's Terminal 5. We'd like to add to that list New York's Grand Central Station.

So how might airports improve their offering? Mike continues, "You've got to incorporate draws that are over and above the aeroplane. Currently it's an aeroplane destination; very few people go there to cruise around for the evening. So to make an airport richer, more diverse and interesting, you've got to put in more landside amenities - retail, leisure, maybe a cinema or an art gallery - and good food. If the best restaurant in Hounslow were at Heathrow, people would go there just for that! To create destinations at airports for people who aren't necessarily travelling is the way forward for the wise operator."

Huw Thomas, Partner at Foster + Partners adds his own fascinating take, telling us, "I think it splits down into the question of ‘is it social, domestic and leisure travel? Or is it business-orientated travel' that's causing you to consider a transport node. It's also then about cross layering that with age groups - young, working age, retired and how and why they might wish to use transport".

"Certainly the definition of social/leisure and working is now blurred. With mobile technologies, people tend to mix - they might well be social/domestic/leisure travellers, but they'll also want to be in contact with work. The nature of the working environment has changed, and what people need from a facility has changed quite dramatically over the last decade to fifteen years.

"What we're beginning to see is a transport node being used almost historically like the stage coach inns - the places you watered and fed yourself. People also gathered at those staging points because they knew people would be passing through and that's where you did business.

"I often find that's the case now - any number of times I've gone to St Pancras International and met people on the train coming in from Paris. They're going to do something else but there's the opportunity to meet for say half an hour before they carry on.

"Going back to the notion of the watering hole, what might have once been a rather dismal affair even a decade ago, well, you only have to go to St Pancras or Kings Cross to experience the change. My daughter takes me to Kings Cross to eat at one of the many restaurants there. She doesn't actually think of it as a station."

And an example of an airport that has gone a long way towards succeeding as a destination? Both Mike and Huw cite Changi, with Huw adding, "It was probably one of the first to work as an airport that supported the passenger in different ways - Schipol has done that very successfully too. I think the emerging Middle Eastern hubs understand that, and Heathrow isn't too bad!"

Gail Taylor

These issues will be explored in depth along with other key issues relating to urban mobility at WAD14 from 12-14th November 2014. For more information and to book a ticket visit: www.worldarchitectureday2014.com

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