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Why Is There a Track in Narita Airport Terminal 3? Designer Naoki Ito's Concept of Airport Design

translated and edited by Brett Larner
photos and images of the Narita Airport Terminal 3 running track design:
image one - image two - image three - image four

A "low-cost carrieresque" design scheme with attention to detail.

Constructed for use by low-cost carrier budget airlines, Narita Airport's new Passenger Terminal 3 opened on April 8, and its overall design concept is now clear.  With a total floor area of 66,000 square meters it is able to handle 50,000 arrivals and departures per year with expected passenger traffic on the scale of 7.5 million people annually.  Apart from just those hard numbers, in details like color-coded foot traffic flow lines in the design of a running track, departure gates featuring wire mesh instead of glass and a 450-seat food court, the new terminal fully embraces its "low-cost carrieresqueness."  We spoke with the person in charge of creative direction for Passenger Terminal 3, Naoki Ito of Creative Lab Party, about the project's concept and realization.

-- How did you exercise creative direction within the constraints of a limited project budget?

Ito: Firstly, I tried to capture the positive within the fact that the design budget was itself "low cost."  To give you an idea of how tight things were, the very first thing the other party in the negotiations said after our proposal was, "About the budget....." [laughs]  I made it the top priority to include economic rationality in the design, essentially asking myself whether I could come to enjoy working within constraints.  If you can come to love constraints then you can also come to love not having a budget.  My conceptualization process became, "OK, what if we do this?" and "How about this idea?"  If we're not going to make signs, let's make the path you're walking itself guide you.  Let's use large-scale, easy-to-understand design on the walls.  Through this kind of concept we greatly reduced the number of signs to be put up.

The running track design unites two disparate elements into one, transforming air travel into a mirror image of sports.

One of the results born from these constraints features prominently in the new terminal, the foot traffic flow lines designed to replicate a running track.  The track employs the same rubber chip materials used in actual running track surfaces and its lanes are color coded, blue for departures and reddish-brown for arrivals.  Clearly providing guidance to travellers while minimizing the need for electronic monitor boards, the design succeeded in reducing costs.

-- How did you come to end up with a running track design?

Ito: I was on the track team in elementary school and have done a lot of work with sports brands, and I thought that it would be interesting if we could capture the positive feeling that occurs in the moment of running.  That was at the root of our proposal, and right from the beginning of planning three years ago we've continued to follow that idea.  The concept this time was "more than 2 into 1," the economic rationality of combining multiple functions in one construction.  You could say "killing two birds with one stone." [laughs]  Since the budget was very limited, we would never have made it if we'd let a sign just be a sign.  Along with that, I had the idea that it would be really interesting to create the experience of being on a track and finding yourself at your boarding gate.

What is called the traffic flow line of an airport is actually very simple.  Everyone enters from the train and bus entrances, and after passing through security they proceed to the departure gates.  I think that simple directional flow suggested a running track, and in terms of the movement within an airport the traffic load is pretty heavy.  People have suitcases, and particularly with low-cost carriers they often have to walk quite a long way [before they can board].  To reduce this load the other terminals have moving sidewalks, but the constraints made it difficult to use them in Terminal 3.  If you have to go to Terminal 3 from Terminal 2 you either have to walk or use the shuttle bus that runs between Terminals 2 and 3.  There aren't any moving sidewalks, and the distance between the two terminals is around 500 m [12 minutes or so on foot].  It was of major importance to us that that area be both highly functional and an enjoyable environment.  As a result we thought that highlighting the movement in a positive way would be a good thing, and that is how we settled on this kind of design.

A design made possible by studying the construction of big boxes.

-- Including the track, please talk about your choices of colors and materials.

Ito: In terms of the overall design, because I had the concept of "design without design" in mind, I found inspiration for the necessary components of the original building by researching non-airport spaces such as factories, warehouses and stadiums.  The ceiling piping was done in the image of a factory, and the layout of IKEA stores was very helpful in conceiving traffic flow lines.  With the image of long layover times associated with low-cost carriers in mind, we even made original color-coded sofas for the airport.

The colors used in the track in the terminal are the same as those used in official athletics tracks.  We used blue, representing movement toward the sky, for departures, and earth-colored reddish-brown for arrivals.  The rubber chip material used in the track reduces the burden placed on the legs, minimizing fatigue even if you have to walk long distances.  The blue color of the track is particularly bright, so we minimized the use of color elsewhere to give a clean monochrome appearance.  The Western font employed throughout the terminal is Frutiger Next.

We were very fortunate to be able to handle the environmental design all the way from the construction stage.  The Narita Airport management put in many, many specific functional requests regarding ease of cleaning, durability, counterterrorism and the like, and it was necessary to correctly find the solutions for each of these needs.  In terms of pictograms, it was unacceptable that they not be in conformity with those in Terminal 1 and 2, so the shapes are basically the same.  But the track-style triangle-shaped direction arrows and other details are different from anything seen until now.


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