Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Osaka Airport Design Takes off Renzo Piano Building Workshop Aims to Lighten Load of Emotions as Travelers Tackle New Lands

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Osaka Airport Design Takes off Renzo Piano Building Workshop Aims to Lighten Load of Emotions as Travelers Tackle New Lands

Article excerpt

ARCHITECTS Renzo Piano and Noriaki Okabe had never built an airport when they sat down in the late 1980s to design one for a man-made island in the bay off Osaka, Japan. But, says Mr. Okabe, "We knew airports -- as passengers." The way he speaks English, with traces of Japanese, French, and Italian, underscores the fact that he is well-traveled. "There's something quite wrong in airports," he adds. "You lose yourself very easily." So he and Mr. Piano, best known for his work in co-designing the Pompidou Centre in Paris with British architect Richard Rogers, set out to create a terminal in which you cannot lose yourself. In their design for Kansai International Airport, they may very well have achieved this end, although there will always be people who will find ways to get lost in airports. Even amid the anxiety produced by travel and too many fellow travelers, Kansai offers moments that are transporting in ways that have nothing to do with airplanes. Airports can be difficult places. People are leaving the earth for the sky, very often one country for another, and sometimes one phase of life for a new one. Kansai International's terminal and concourse can soften these edgy transitions, not because it's well organized but because it offers the occasional architectural thrill. Kansai's departing passengers have the greatest opportunity to appreciate the architecture. People checking in at the international departures area do so under a graceful, swooping ceiling that is the terminal's best feature. Piano is known for his embrace of structural materials, and the trusses that support the arched ceiling are in no way hidden. It's an asymmetrical arch that in cross-section looks like an undulating wing, but Okabe says they had nothing so definite in mind. Instead they sought to convey grace and fluidity, he explains. In between each of the trusses, which rise to a height of almost 60 feet over the departures area, is a sail-like piece of stretched canvas that reflects light and directs streams of air from ventilation blowers. The ceiling is thus as weightless as it looks: It carries no lighting fixtures, air ducts, or maintenance platforms. The designers erred when they installed a distracting series of metal and cloth mobiles that hang just below the canvas sails; the colors of the artworks clash with similar hues elsewhere in the terminal. The effect is to mar the purity of the ceiling's curves. All passengers, domestic and international, will wait at gates set along a mile-long concourse that defines the linear character of the airport. The concourse's unending windows, overlooking airplanes and the runway, are curved in a way that suggests a spinnaker sail filled with wind. (Even arriving passengers walk through this space on their way to baggage claim or an exit. …
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