Norman Foster's original concept for Stansted Airport remains intact, but only just. Natural light, space, a supported roof structure that merges into the clouds, the wonder of lighter-than-air machines. It is obvious that the original ambience will not be maintained in the long term. Some years on from its construction there is an atmosphere of change and rapid expansion within the airport as passenger throughput increases and more operational and commercial features are integrated into the main airport concourse occur. Are they all justified? Will the building find a champion for design? Can passenger rights be maintained? These, and other, questions need to be addressed by the airport management.
Only a year or so ago Stansted was regarded as a quiet, somewhat ethereal venue. It was all part of the original design that took London's newest airport away from the old cliches attached to both Heathrow and Gatwick, said to be 'Exciting, vibrant and energetic' or, put another way, overcrowded. Planners had failed to recognise the speed at which civil aviation was to expand. Heathrow and Gatwick are amazing in the effectiveness with which they operate, given the pressure on space and resources from expanding airline traffic and from the airport authority's growing retail areas.
Taking away some of the shops and restaurants in Stansted groundside could restore a lot of the original concept. baa is, of course, quite justified in installing commercial facilities for its customers, backed as it is by customer surveys. This appears to be what the market wants. But how much can be tolerated before there is a negative impact on operational capacity and the ability of the passengers simply to reach their seat on the aircraft? Now that baa's commercial revenue has overtaken operational revenue, the commercial arm can no doubt call the tune.
Ownership of the customer will always be debated between airport authorities and airlines. In an airport like Heathrow the airport authority will always have the upper hand because the airport is so well placed to serve densely populated areas. At its opening Stansted was not considered to be so well placed. As a consequence the airport opened by offering the advantage of spacious facilities to both passengers and airlines. But as both its markets continue to expand, where will the new balance lie between airline and airport-authority interests?
Appeal of calm
Stansted is at the point in its development where passengers' needs to access existing resources should be re-assessed and, if necessary, reorganised before more space is taken and a point of no return reached. At a recent joint seminar of the Sign Design Society and rnib, a super-mall marketing manager presented research proving that a calm, well-orientated customer tended to spend more than his intended budget, while the frustrated, time- stressed customer spent less. Thus too much of a buzzing marketplace can be counterproductive if it interferes with the primary function of the venue.
Wayfinding is a direct function of the environment. Readily perceived spatial relationships and a sympathetic environment promote good wayfinding, greater efficiency and calm. All these lead to a positive travel experience. The need to promote a super-mall atmosphere in some of the country's largest and most profitable assets may need a rethink, especially if this has an adverse effect on business.
Signs of ambiguity
Stansted is a little different from other baa London airports. While Gatwick fares reasonably well, at Stansted there is more observance of the original architectural intent. This is particularly true of the internal structures where height is strictly limited in order to maintain clear sightlines to the roof. This poses problems for wayfinding and signage in that important icons which need to be disassociated from other functions can get lost. The following instances show a growing pressure on the original design clarity, and growing problems for wayfinding and signage.
The most obvious example is the 'meeting points', which are merely a gesture, difficult to find unless one is directed to the area. One solution could be to retain the height limitation but to improve illumination of the feature.
For direction-finding more generally, the most obvious place to receive 'direction' would be from the airport information desk, yet there is little signing to this. It is relegated from the centre of the concourse to one end of the airport near arrivals. Arriving passengers are probably its most likely customers, but signage from other areas would be beneficial.
Adoption of the baa themed black-on-yellow direction signage, and the standard green exit signage, are particularly effective at Stansted where they are easily located while not being overpowering in scale. There is a good reason for this. At Stansted there is no roof-hung signage, a great asset in reducing visual clutter. Also, the walls of the concourse building are of glass and (so far) no one has had the audacity to attach signage. This means that any perimeter signage space, mainly at entry/exit points, is at a premium and the signage area is thoughtfully used. To ensure that essential services are well signed in areas other than exits, the airport has also installed cleanly designed totems with backlit signage that still maintain the height guideline and the corporate colour themes.
Any architect, planner or operations manager has to fight to maintain aesthetic intentions, especially against flyposted signage that may appear on any convenient surface that presents itself. Flyposted signage may well have official backing in organisations where there are many responsible departments that all have a message to put over.
While this lack of available signing surfaces provides some control, the remaining surfaces are under pressure. Notably, the end walls of the check-in aisles are very visible to entering passengers and have begun to become the airport 'pin board'. Ideally the check-in aisle ends should only have easily assimilated essential check-in information to ensure fast flow to the correct check-in aisles. The current list of posted information and similar on the aisle ends includes: check-in monitors - appropriate; check-in plasma display - appropriate; check-in lcd board - appropriate; 'Welcome to Stansted', first aid, parking, information; courtesy telephones (did not answer); 'There are no flight announcements'; temporary coach services (airside departure information); 'no smoking'; Children in Need - win a flight; staff telephones; swipe-card reader; 20 x 30cm map of the airport. This is cluttered.
The essential check-in information at aisle-ends was unreadable, washed out by sunlight. The lcd board that could have coped with the high brightness is suffering from maintenance problems, so try the airport information desk, but where is that? Check-in and flight information are basic essentials - it is very surprising that baa with its great operational experience has not yet managed to get it right at Stansted.
Due to architectural constraints, essential information on flight departures is restricted to the roof support pillars, not always the best position. This is a clear case of communication failure between the architect, his brief and his customer. And due to the high ambient natural light level within Stansted, the monitors on the pillars are often unreadable. Making them brighter to cope with this problem has the direct effect of reducing their life. Electronic displays should be either reflective or transflective (reflective at high ambient light levels, transmittive at low) so that they do not need to overcome high light levels. This has been successfully implemented in arrivals for some years. Where monitors are being used well at Stansted, for rail information, their readability is good because they are directed towards the interior of the concourse, not towards the light, and because of their larger character heights.
A lot of design thought must have gone into the elegant black-and-white backlit analogue clocks fixed to the equally elegant roof supports - they are a design feature of the airport and work well. Or rather, they did. Now some have a centrally placed green and white go airline logo. This obscures the hour hand of the clock and is also another devaluation in the overall design philosophy of the building.
Building even more retail outlets will take away the freedom of movement and the reasonable wayfinding that Stansted passengers have enjoyed for some time. It is still possible to see your destination from afar. To date, the airport authority has continued to observe the low-level roof lines of interior structures - there is no impingeing on the architect's concept here. But reserve your applause. The low load capacity of the floors cannot save the space from the likes of gas-filled dirigibles.
Frank Landa is manager of information systems at DaimlerChrysler Aerospace