Arriving in style

Istanbul Airport’s terminal is the biggest ever built, but its design manages to still place all passengers’ experience at the forefront, while honouring Turkish architecture. James Parker reports

Opened this April, the new terminal building at Istanbul Airport is the largest yet constructed in the world, and is the result of a multi-faceted collaboration. This included concept architects Grimshaw, Haptic and Nordic Office of Architecture, with interior design concept and design development by Scott Brownrigg. The new airport moves all traffic from Ataturk airport to the Black Sea coast to provide a major international hub, providing for stopovers on long-haul flights as well as ‘point to point’ flights. Initially having two runways, the airport is due to expand to six in subsequent phases, and currently serves 90 million passengers per year, which will rise to 150 million. The terminal building is notable not only for its size, but for the way it provides striking architectural forms informed by its cultural context, which also help passengers by breaking up the monumental scale, and its speed of construction. Due to the modular approach used, the project took only 42 months to build, despite having a gross floor area of 1.44 million m2, and having 371 aircraft parking spots, 143 boarding bridges and a total cost of €10.2bn.

Forming the team

The consortium consisting of local companies Cengiz, Kolin, Limak, MNG and Kalyon required a swift timeframe for the Arup-masterplanned project, owner of Haptic, Tomas Stokke told ADF. The investment consortium won the bid to develop the project in May 2013. Andrew Thomas of Grimshaw explains how Nordic’s previous experience with the client stood them in good stead for being appointed to design this scheme: “It so happened that the project’s technical director and CEO of the client group had had a very positive previous experience with Nordic.” Tomas adds: “They did a peer review on an airport, including some very frank commentary.” At the same time, Haptic and Grimshaw were seeking a “relevant” project they could collaborate on, “where we would literally reinforce each other,” says Tomas. He adds that the two firms thought that “it might be an airport project of a certain size where a three-way collaboration might be good,” so when Nordic was initially approached by the client, they joined forces with Haptic (who share a familial link as Stokke’s father Gudmund is principal partner at Nordic), and Grimshaw. Andrew says that the principles of how the three-way relationship would function were “agreed very quickly,” and it would be a “blended team, with complete parity of creative responsibility.” Everyone involved would have an equal share in the design, and there wouldn’t be any lines drawn between the teams. With Nordic and Haptic both having London bases near Grimshaw’s Clerkenwell office, as well as in Oslo, facilitating design collaboration in each firm’s base wasn’t a problem. Andrew says: “We just worked in a very joined up way,” adding that during the intense, roughly four-month design period, some of the bases “became centres of gravity for particular parts of the project, and that made sense in terms of using our resources effectively.”

Cultural inspiration

This was a project with national importance, and as such the design would reference Turkish cultural traditions, and more specifically the famous architecture of Istanbul itself, however not in a slavish way. Members of the design teams spent a good amount of time in the city, “studying everything from the contemporary aspects to the amazing Mosques,” says Tomas Stokke. As a result, while the team was concerned to avoid pastiche at all costs, they wanted to bring some of the sense of the city to its new airport terminal. This naturally meant emulating some of the forms of Istanbul’s historic religious buildings, but also the experience of their interiors, as well as other typologies such as hammams. Andrew Thomas: “From our walks around the city and the imagery we used for inspiration in researching the project, the mosques had an incredible drama of light, within what are generally quite solid, heavy buildings – seeing that light how it plays across the floor was a strong reference point.” “We didn’t want a literal interpretation of a Mosque, but to use their qualities – such as how light filters through clerestory windows,” says Tomas. However, he adds that the design inspiration “was as much about the markets of Istanbul – the patterns and colour, and the feeling you get as you walk through the streets and vistas appear.” Haptic, Nordic and Grimshaw, have all designed projects across the globe with sensitivity to the cultural context at their core. As Andrew says, “wherever any of us have worked you can see there’s a deep intention to try and read, understand and represent the place.”

Streams of light & natural wayfinding

The building’s colossal vaulted roof is the main design feature – constructed of repeating modular steel forms – and the one which most conspicuously echoes the traditional architecture of Istanbul. The soffit is formed of steel ribs which allows what Stokke describes as “streams of light” to permeate down to the airport’s floor – from regularly placed circular rings of rooflights above, as well as points where the ribs cross. He says this was a “key concept from early on in the design,” and says proudly that it has “translated incredibly well into the final result.” The key benefit for passengers of the rooflights is that the very deep-planned 750 m wide x 380 m deep structure building is broken up and enlivened. This is also achieved by the columns and the double barrel-vault form of the ceiling, which form bays with regularly spaced rooflights. These also have the important benefit of helping guide passengers through the building. “The barrel vault running in both directions really helps with orientation,” says Stokke. Major functions such as the check-in ‘island’ have been placed so they are framed by the vault above, to exploit the natural wayfinding fostered by the structure, as Stokke explains: “The main lines of movement sit within the vaults, including the retail elements. It reinforces the natural movement through the airport.” He cites one example of the success of this, from the airport’s opening earlier this year, where the client placed staff throughout the airport to help guide passengers, but “people very intuitively understood how to navigate this very large airport.”

Behind the vaulted soffit, the roof is a simple flat form with a regular 36 metre column grid. However, the vault itself forms part of the supporting structure, and is not merely decorative – “the vaulted form expresses the geometry of the roof structure above, rather than being merely decorative” says Andrew. He says that the roof’s design was also driven by pragmatism, due to the tight schedule: “It was about a roof that’s simple, modular and easy to build, can be built quickly, and design quality can be secured in the simplest way possible even without our ongoing involvement.” Scott Brownrigg led on the interior design concept and the design development, working with local Turkish architects Fonksiyon Mimarlik, Turgut Alton Mimarlik and Kiklop Design & Engineering. Andrew comments: “both client and architects were very faithful to the design concept, and did a very good job of realising it.” Tomas adds that the simple modularity of the design “helped safeguard the design intention.” The roof design was one area where the three practices “worked really effectively in parallel,” says Andrew, the individual firms all undertaking studies which “brought a real richness to it,” he says. This parallel design process was overseen by a director in each case, who then came together to combine their work. Due to the building’s huge scale, its 23.5 metre height relative to its width, is in proportion. Tomas: “The number sounds crazy but in the context of scale of the terminal it feels just right.” He adds that – echoing the city itself – passengers being able to “see “large lit spaces at the end of the vistas” helps to “humanise the scale”.

Alternative movement

The interior of the T-shaped terminal (or ‘processor’ building, using airport design terminology) have a logical arrangement for departing passengers on the second floor, with check in desks near to the entrance. Behind these sit passport control and security screening, located between two large internal structures, one housing offices, and the other a hotel. Beyond these are the retail areas, before passengers head directly out to one of the double-height, fully glazed piers to wait at their allocated gate on the second level – this airport is equipped with MARS gates which can accommodate two small or one large aircraft. Within the five long piers, the designers took the decision to turn conventional airport design on its head when it came to the level changes required for passengers on this scheme. Traditionally, departing passengers have the upper hand when it comes to spatial quality, as they tend to spend a lot more time and therefore money in the airport. Here, arriving passengers are treated to much more than the standard windowless tunnel to baggage reclaim. Andrew explains: “There was a lot of discussion early on about whether they should be on upper or lower level – quite often arriving passengers come into a poorly lit basement and a lot of corridors.” Instead, at Istanbul, passengers have an invigorating, much more visually-connected welcome. After ascending via escalators from the piers, they walk across a series of daylit bridges with open views over the cavernous terminal below.

Descending to passport control and baggage reclaim on the ground floor, they move down finally to taxi ranks on the sub-ground level. The much improved experience also helps to offset the fact that they by default have a much longer, unbroken journey through the airport than departing counterparts. Andrew says: “It’s something we have tried to address in our projects, and on Istanbul we all came with the same view on how we should treat it.” Maurice Rosario from Scott Brownrigg comments on the interiors: “We’ve created a series of ‘big moments’ along the route. For example, rather than traversing endless similar corridors, there’s an area at the end of the piers that’s a significant space in its own right”. In a similar way, the various standard ‘moments’ which departing passengers have to navigate – from check in to retail area – helps to break up walking distances. “Comparable airports have much longer distances,” asserts Maurice.


The building’s major external design feature also provide passive cooling for the building in a hot climate. The architects extended the vault to provide an enormous canopy overhanging the fully glazed south-facing front facade by approximately 54 metres. There is a full structural bay external to the glazing providing a covered courtyard running the length of the building– further limiting solar gain and creating an distinctive profile. This is one key sustainability benefit, together with the building being “relatively compact,” says Stokke, adding “this is very significant in environmental terms”. A further ‘eco’ aspect is the relative lack of artificial lighting, due to the large numbers of rooflights. Between the airport’s front facade and the car park is a planted area which once its trees have matured will be a very attractive green space. The next stage of the project will see another terminal building of 340,000 m² constructed, handling up to 30 million passengers, as well as another runway. The new terminal was designed to be flexible, and as is common with major airport projects, its size was increased dramatically during the initial design stages. Maurice comments: “Due to its construction being based on a repeatable modularity, as well as ‘soft’ spaces left to accommodate potential future changes in airport technology or processes, it could be easily expanded to meet these needs.” He continues, “This terminal is the dawn of a new era in terms of passenger experience, setting the blueprint for future mega hub airports, whilst maintaining its sense of place but above all maintaining a human scale.”


While this building is a major achievement on several levels, one of the lesser known accomplishments but still worthy of recognition is the success of moving all passenger traffic (60 million passengers annually) over from Ataturk in one weekend, a virtually unprecedented logistical feat. But when it comes to the building, aside from being the biggest airport building yet constructed, the real trick the architects have pulled off is to prioritise the experience of its users. This will be particularly welcomed by tired passengers arriving from a long flight, who will no doubt be surprised to encounter a truly pleasant, and manageable place. And its standardised construction, while being simultaneously fast, efficient and sensible, is key to this, breaking down this behemoth into something like a human scale.



  • Gross floor area: 1,440,000 m2
  • Project cost: €10.2bn
  • No. of aircraft parking places: 371
  • No. of boarding bridges: 143