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A New Airport for India’s New Gateway: Gensler’s Design for Chennai International

Photo courtesy of Gensler

Q&A with Gensler’s Kashyap Bhimjiani, a senior designer for Chennai International Airport’s new terminals.

India’s third-busiest airport, Chennai International is the gateway to country’s southern region. A new benchmark in resilient design for Asian airports, the terminal’s signature curved roof serves to collect rainwater that is reused on site and also allows natural daylight into the building's innermost spaces. Designed to minimize its impact on the environment and provide a healthy atmosphere for passengers, the terminal is symbolic of the need for Indian buildings to take a more aggressive approach toward conserving power and water

This terminal is being touted as a gateway to new business as India “looks East.” How does the design set the stage for further economic growth in the region?

Chennai is the southern gateway to India and houses most of the country’s international banks as well as the international motor industry in the region. Additionally, there has been a tremendous influx of Indian-born professionals coming back to the region — people who, having lived abroad, arrive with a higher level of expectations with regard to how Chennai will perform. At the same time, the local community has also been increasingly exposed to the international environment as the city has grown.

Expectations were very high while this building was being designed. It’s going to be appreciated not just by passengers and the city, but also by the Airport Authority of India, which will manage the terminal. Most of the systems the building uses for passenger check-in and other things are what’s known in the aviation industry as CUTE: common use terminal equipment, as opposed to systems that are proprietary and only for one airline. This means that the systems used can be used by multiple airlines, allowing the greatest flexibility for the terminal in the years to come.

I was in Chennai just a few weeks ago, and one of the things local officials are talking about is how state-of-the-art the new airport is. The locals are expressing great pride in the project. And great hope.

Why are water and energy conservation particularly important issues in the design of these terminals?

Chennai was looking to build a modern airport for a fast-developing city and country, and that meant addressing environmental issues. The use and conservation of water and energy is very important across the globe, and particularly in India, where power outages and water shortages are common in summer months.

The roof design, which offers valuable shading from direct sunlight and also collects water, was most important. Also important was a landscaped garden in the middle of the building, as well as creating visual access to that space from all parts of the building. The garden allows opportunities for water retention and also creates a sense of place. Because it is filled with native plantings, it’s a direct connection to this location, this city, this place. Although there is no physical access to the garden because of security issues — it’s between the ticket hall and the holdroom concourse — people passing through the building can see it at all times. Maintaining that connection for passengers, a direct sight line to the garden, was a defining objective of the design.

Using as much natural light as possible to illuminate the interior was also a primary focus. Daylight penetrates the innermost parts of the terminal, both through the curtain wall and also through skylights. Even in the “sterile corridor,” which separates inbound and outbound passengers at the mezzanine level, we made sure that passengers are connected to the outside via natural daylight as much as possible.

Photo courtesy of Gensler

What challenges did passengers confront at the old Chennai airport, and how did those difficulties inform the design approach of the new terminal?

One of the biggest challenges we resolved was passenger flow through the building, as well as a reinvigorated sense of a positive travel experience. In the old terminal at Chennai International Airport, it’s really difficult to figure out where you need to go. The architecture also doesn’t have a strong identity, and it doesn’t feel connected to its city. It could be any building and be in any city in the world. In fact, the terminal doesn’t even feel like an airport. The structure was built three decades ago and has suffered from a near-complete lack of upkeep, so it hasn’t been meeting contemporary terminal standards for some time. It doesn’t represent what Chennai has become: an international gateway and booming business center. We wanted to create a building that is truly world-class, has a sense of identity and place, and clearly belongs in Chennai while addressing the city’s needs.

The curving roof is the terminal’s signature design move. How is it influenced by Chennai’s weather and climate?

Chennai is in the south of India, where during the February-to-May hot season, the daily temperature averages 35-40 C (95-104 F); during the monsoon season, late May through September, it rains pretty much every day. So one of our first moves was to think about how we would leverage the site’s natural beauty, yet mitigate discomfort from its weather extremes.

On the southern entrance, we created a large overhang canopy to provide a dry, shaded area where the passengers arrive. On the northern facade we have a smaller overhang, due to less direct sunlight and the fact that passengers aren’t outside there. And on both sides, the floor-to-ceiling glass is tilted outward, to prevent glare. The solution we devised is not universal to the building type, but was tailored to Chennai’s particular climate and needs.

In addition, the airport roof is designed to collect rainwater, which is used to help cool the building and to keep the landscape plantings hydrated.

How do you think travelers to the airport will react to the changes they see in the new terminal? Will anything surprise them? What do you think they will appreciate most?

We expect that passengers will most appreciate the clarity of the design and the visual aspect of the garden, something that previously has never been explored at an Indian airport terminal. The entire passenger experience at the airport will be on par with any other international terminal in the world. Chennai International Airport is big leap forward for the city and for India.

Kashyap Bhimjiani is a senior designer for aviation and transportation practice area and an associate in Gensler’s Washington, D.C., office. As a highly capable designer and planner, he places a special emphasis on inducing cultural elements and experiential quality in the design to create a memorable experience through architecture. Contact him at kashyap_bhimjiani@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (3)

Nice post. It is very promising to see context & climate sensitive contemporary design.
India does need more of this thinking and I think that is happening right now.
04.11.2013 | Unregistered CommenterPoonam Narkar
One big design flaw in the new Chennai airport is the direction of the traffic flow at the domestic departure level. Why is it that one has to drive up from right to left? The driver is thus on the kerb side. This would have been fine in the US or European countries. Here buses and vans will be disgorging their passengers on the road and not on the kerb. Luggage too will be sitting on the road. Baggage trolleys will have to be on the road. Can the direction be changed now?
06.5.2013 | Unregistered CommenterRavi K. Nair
Hi Ravi,
The overall masterplanof the airport will allow for clockwise direction of traffic which will address the issue of dropping the passenger on the kerb side of the road. The current situation is temporary until the entire road network is constructed. Hope this is sorted out soon and improves the passenger experience.
06.12.2013 | Unregistered CommenterKashyap Bhimjiani

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