Wellington Airport’s new terminal – The Rock – has had more than its share of brickbats. The glut of recent awards though shows why this controversial design makes for one of the world’s best airport terminals.
Text By : Chryselle D’Silva Dias
Photographs Courtesy : Patrick Reynolds
Wellington Airport’s new terminal building is one of those places that evoke strong reactions in people – you either like it or you don’t. Dubbed ‘The Rock’ for its angular form and resemblance to the rocks around the coast, the terminal was the last project of a five-year endeavour to increase capacity at the airport.
Studio Pacific Architecture and Warren and Mahoney, both award-winning firms based in New Zealand, were entrusted with this ambitious task. Founded in 1992, Studio Pacific is known for its work with the arts, housing, workspaces and regeneration projects. Warren and Mahoney are noted for their sustainability practices and urban design, among other things. They are also New Zealand’s first Carbon Zero rated architectural practice. The brief for The Rock was not only to double the space in the departure lounge but also to provide a memorable travel experience along with an edgy, iconic design.
The concept for the new terminal was inspired by the environment around Wellington Airport. The shape of the rocks around the coast is reflected in the angularity and fissures of the terminal buildings. The idea of a rock was to counter the current trend of airports where glass plays a major role and the focus is on flights.
The Rock is designed to do the opposite – be a safe place, so that you feel secure and anchored before taking your flight.
The undoubtedly unusual exterior of the building is covered in copper plated panels that will eventually turn blue-green in the salty sea air. The current colour of the ‘new’ copper has also contributed to the public image of a rock, but as the patina of the metal changes, the building will eventually reflect the sky and the sea. The project was made more complex by the fact that there is not a single square or straight panel in the entire design. Every panel, both on the interior and exterior, had to be individually measured and manufactured.
“Copper was chosen for the exterior cladding firstly because of its organic, almost geological qualities – it helped to create a craggy exterior like a rock or a shell, and over time will weather to a verdigris patina so that it becomes part of its harsh, weathered coastal environment.
Secondly, it provides excellent durability in a highly corrosive environment of sea air and aircraft fuel gases,” explains Tracey Taylor of StudioPacific.
Inside, geometric panels reminiscent of origami designs curve in impossible ways, drawing passengers into a world of golden veneer and metal. “The timber panels were used to absorb the building’s complex geometry and create a faceted, gently undulating ceiling that is softer than the exterior but retains its organic qualities,” says Tracey.
The architects incorporated several ingenious ideas to reduce the use of wiring or ducts. “Slots carved into the panels allow air to pass through, meaning that no other ducts or systems are required, preserving the uninterrupted beauty of the interior surfaces. A fabric lining on the back of these slots absorbs sounds to create a soft, muted acoustic environment,” shares Tracey.
Each window was carefully placed to maximise the view to the aircraft on the tarmac and the skyline above. As part of the building’s sustainable strategy, lifts and elevators have been kept to a minimum. Instead, staircases and gentle ramps encourage movement within the building.
Despite all the controversy surrounding the design (it has been called ‘The Pumpkin’, among other things), The Rock has won several notable awards since it opened in 2010. The terminal was recently awarded first place in the Transportation category at the World Festival of Interiors (Barcelona, 2011) where the judges commented, “We were impressed that the project celebrated the local heritage through a symbolic design that didn’t adhere to the stereotype of a typical transport building.”
Overcoming the initial criticism of its design, The Rock, with all the emotions it evokes in the thousands of people that pass through its new doors, is standing on very firm ground. Just as the copper panels on its exterior will gradually age to a soothing aquamarine, the terminal is poised to take Wellington Airport to new heights. The eleven awards in its kitty are surely just the beginning.