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Stansted Airport challenged all the rules of airport terminal design. It went back to the roots of modern air travel and literally stood conventional wisdom on its head. The earliest airport buildings were very simple: on one side there was a road and on the other a field where aircraft landed into the wind. The route from landside to airside involved a walk from your car through the terminal and out to your plane, which was always in view. Stansted attempted to recapture the clarity of those early airfields, together with some of the lost romance of air travel.

From the traveller's point of view, movement through the building is straightforward and direct - there are none of the level changes and orientation problems that characterise most airports

Passengers progress in a fluid movement from the set-down point through to the check-in area, passport control and departure lounges, where they can see the planes. From there, an automated tracked transit system takes them to satellite buildings to board their aircraft. This degree of clarity was achieved by turning the building 'upside down', banishing the heavy environmental services usually found at roof level to an undercroft that runs beneath the concourse. The undercroft also contains baggage handling and was able to accommodate a mainline railway station, which was integrated into the building late in the design process.

Service distribution systems are contained within the 'trunks' of the structural 'trees' that rise from the undercroft through the concourse floor.

These trees support a roof canopy that is freed simply to keep out the rain and let in light. Entirely daylit on all but the most overcast of days, the constantly changing play of light gives the concourse a poetic dimension and also has significant energy and economic advantages, leading to running costs that are half those of any other British terminal. Energy efficient, environmentally discreet within its rural setting, technologically advanced yet simple to use and experience, Stansted has become a model for airport planners and designers worldwide.

Stansted Airport is a rational response to the requirements of air travel. But the structure transcends the merely functional. Indeed the 'structural trees' which support the roof and carry services create a powerful, romantic space with their arms branching up within an interior bathed with diffused light.

Sir Banister Fletcher's A History of Architecture, Twentieth Edition, edited by Dan Cruickshank, 1996

“For inspiration we went back to the early days of aviation, when life was very simple. You walked towards the aircraft, and when you returned you walked towards the road. You did not need complex signage systems. Would it be possible, we asked, to rediscover that clarity, given the complexity that generally constitutes the airport as we know it today?” Norman Foster

“There is a brand of logic within the Foster office ideally suited to the design of airports; identify the main human problem, invent a system to cope with is and pursue the result with ruthless rationality.” Peter Davey, the Architectural review, June 1986

“When you dive through the clouds in your charter jet and spot this silver machine, you will have no doubt that air travel has, for the first time in years, been rewarded with its own special breed of architecture.” Jonathan Glancey, The Independent, 13 March 1991

“Unlike Heathrow and Gatwick, Stansted was conceived as an airport that functions as a unit. Offers passengers a clear pedestrian route, and is flexible enough to allow explanation without fragmentation into a series of independent buildings.” Koos Bosma, Buildings for Air Travel, edited by John Zukowsky, 1996

“The big jets are a dramatic part of the scenery and provide a primary information to beckon you towards the airside. The terminal is really one very large room and the arrival sequence is a simple reversal of the process on the same level.” Norman Foster

“If Duxford grows out of the earth, Stansted looks about to leave it. The high pavilion roof seems so lightweight the wind might lift it up, like a giant tent, and the glass walls let in so much natural light that, even on a grey day, there id little need for electricity.” Liz Jobey, The Guardian, 27 June 1998

“The roof is about light and water – the poetry of light and the hydraulic engineering of water. Gone are the ducts, suspended ceilings, fluorescent light tubes, roof-mounted machinery, extracts and drainage pipes that disfigure most airports. All of that has been transformed through the design process.” Norman Foster

Appointment: 1981
Completion: 1991

Area: 85 700m²
Height: 15 m
Capacity: 3689

Client: BAA plc

Collaborating Architect: Stansted Airport Ltd.

Structural Engineer: Ove Arup and Partners
Quantity Surveyor: BAAC & Beard Dove / Needleman, Currie & Brown
M+E Engineer: BAA
Landscape Architect: Adrian Lisney
Lighting Engineer: Claude Engle

Awards

  • Finalist - BBC Design Awards
  • 'Financial Times' Architecture Award - Commendation
  • Benedictus Award, USA (for the innovative use of laminated glass)
  • RIBA Architecture Award
  • Civic Trust Award
  • 'AJ'/Hilight Lighting Award Commendation 1992
  • Structural Steel Award
  • Royal Institiute of Chartered Surveyors Award Energy Efficiency Award
  • RIBA Regional Architecture Award 1992
  • Concrete Society Award
  • 'Design Review' Minerva Award Commendation
  • Brunel Award Madrid, Commendation
  • English Tourist Board Car Park Special Award, Rural Category
  • British Association of Landscape Industries for landscaping
  • British Gas Energy Management Award
  • National Childcare Facilities Award
  • Business and Industry Panel for the Environment Award
  • Royal Town Planning Institute Silver Jubilee Planning Award for Achievement
  • British Construction Industry Supreme Award
  • Colourcoat Building Award; First Prize - Car Park and Canopies at