Inside the Filipino airport nominated for a world architecture award

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A look into the design of the new Clark International Airport airport, which was chosen as a finalist for the world architecture and design award Prix Versailles World Selection. Photo courtesy of LIPAD CORP

The new Clark International Airport is important for several reasons:

1. It’s the fruit of the first public-private partnership awarded under the Duterte Administration.

2. The consortium that operates it, the Luzon International Premier Airport Development Corporation or LIPAD, is formed by companies with a track record in property development and air travel: Filinvest Development Corporation, JG Summit Holdings Inc., Philippine Airport Ground Support Solutions Inc. and Changi Airports Philippines(I) Pte. Ltd. (a wholly owned subsidiary of Changi Airports International).

3. It’s a key architecture, symbolic almost, of the energies invested in New Clark: the envisioned first green, sustainable, and intentionally disaster-resilient city in the country, according to the Bases Conversion and Development Authority.

For its innovation, creativity, and connection to heritage, the new terminal building of the Clark International Airport was in the top six finalists in the airport category of the 2021 World Selection of the Prix Versailles Architecture and Design Awards. Photo courtesy of LIPAD CORP

According to LIPAD CEO Bi Yong Chungunco, their brief asked for “sense of place” elements — showcasing Filipino hospitality, culture, nature and heritage —, a strong emphasis on operational efficiency, relaxing customer facilities and unique concepts.

As such, tiles, and carpets drew from the rice fields, mountains, lakes, even the lahar in Pampanga. Of note is a sulphurous teal that hikers will recognize from the crater lake of Mt. Pinatubo.

“So we wanted to reflect that in the glass, which nods to that color,” said Ben Dawson, principal at Populous, the global firm that led the interior design and retail planning of the new terminal. “Similarly, a carpet selection — we've got some azure blues, some bright kind of green colors, which nods towards the lush surroundings of the jungles and the mountains. The floor finish selection is a gray stone color, which kind of nods to the lava fields around the area.”

Making all the textures show up in the departure hall is the right type of light: 3500 Kelvin, according to the lighting designer from local firm Light Plan, Jinkie de Jesus-Tiaoqui. (For comparison, an Apple Store is a cool white at 4000 Kelvin. Coffee shops are warmer at 3000 Kelvin. And the NAIA Terminal 1 uses a whitish blue nicknamed by lighting experts as “daylight.”)

Subtle design cues carry through to the lighting, said lighting designer Jinkie de Jesus. “You have to transition the lighting when the person disembarks from the plane, they pass the bridge, the level there shouldn’t be shocking. Eventually you get to immigration, [which] has to be very bright. But you do it gradually so they don’t get shocked.” Photos courtesy of LIPAD CORP

“At night it also looks good, like glowing from within,” de Jesus-Tiaoqui said.

While the airport started to be built before LIPAD won the bid to take over its operations, the new team it appointed built in harmony with the great features in place, particularly the roof arches made of Austrian timber. Dawson said they tried to keep views all the way from the check-in hall unobstructed, so visitors can see the entire timber ceiling from any part of the building. “It's a very open terminal,” he said. “It allows for a lot of natural daylight to flood in.”

More spacing and circulation

From the design architect developing the concept and initial design documents, Casas+Architects, Inc. was the local architect and interior designer of record, which means they were directly responsible for the construction documents, code compliance, material selections and providing construction administration services.

“Despite the COVID-19 pandemic challenges, the project moved forward,” Casas+Architects, Inc. said via email. They made sure to manage the workforce even more thoughtfully, increasing off-site construction of elements that could then just be installed, securing critical materials and long-lead items, identifying alternative suppliers, and adjusting schedules. “The most significant changes to construction, however, went beyond hygiene and safety; we focused on remote work and digital tools to facilitate the continuity of construction projects.”

From a design perspective, Populous adapted a few spaces in the terminal into testing areas, increased spacing to allow for social distancing, and adjusted the circulation in the level four mezzanine to make it accessible for landside users — or people who have not passed through passport control. This allows for more spaces for non-fliers, Dawson said.

Chungunco added: “We incorporated protective elements... Taking into account the new health and safety protocols, the new terminal will have acrylic partitions on customer-facing desks and counters, isolation and testing areas, shower and changing facilities for staff, and social distancing reminders.”

Something to look forward to

Every design decision is the product of a balance of desires: a seamless experience from kerbside to boarding (self-check-in facilities and self baggage drops were installed to lower touch and queuing), but also interior design that, in Chungunco’s words, “does not resemble a typical airport interior.”

For example, they brought in durable seating from Switzerland and Sweden. But to keep the sense of place, past the Duty Free is an events space that will have Pampanga-made furniture on the floor and a lantern by local artists up above.

De Jesus-Tiaoqui said they went through many mockups to get the look and feel for the lighting alone. “Luxury — but when I'm reading my boarding pass or I’m reading a book in the gate, I can read it,” she described it.

All things to look forward to, for the one in ten Pinoys who expect that travelling to international destinations freely will be possible before the year-end, according to a survey by Agoda.

Dawson himself, on a call from Singapore, shared he had a to-do list for when travel is more free between countries. “There’s been a few less site visits than we would have hoped,” he said. “But one of the things that I’ve been amazed by is the resilience of all the Filipinos who work on the project. You know, despite this pandemic, they’ve always had a smile on their face and a real can-do attitude to construction, which has been really impressive.”