‘The Rock’ Wellington International Airport – New International Passenger Terminal

Wellington Airport is located on the south cost of the North Island. Facing directly onto the wind swept Cook
Strait, the coastline is extremely wild, rugged and exposed. As a major regional hub, Wellington Airport is expanding its international capacity with long haul flights to Asia. The architectural brief was for an extension to the existing International Terminal allowing increased capacity for almost every aspect of arrivals and departures including customs control, aviation security, duty free, lounge areas, baggage handling and departure gates etc. The brief from the courageous and ambitious client included two overarching requirements that drove the design (i) it had to be a memorable experience and (ii) that the design had to be ‘edgy’.
The resultant structure draws its inspiration from the geological, historical and mythological past of the
coastal site. In essence, it becomes “landform”. The rugged organic form starkly contrasts the 1970
rectilinear existing concrete piers. The sculptured copper-clad form becomes a haven that is anchored and
embedded in the land. A polar opposite to that of many contemporary airports both worldwide and within
New Zealand which are preoccupied with the imagery of flight. This is the site in Mãori mythology, where
Whataitai, one of the two Taniwha, was fatally stranded in Wellington Harbour, desperately trying to escape
to the open ocean.
The interior space is captivating, exudes warmth and resounds with personality. Spaces unfold on varying
levels and exploration is welcomed, allowing travellers, when required to spend more time in airports with
security procedures becoming increasingly more stringent and time consuming, to meet some respite. It is
intimate. It offers a memorable visitor experience which is both arresting and calming. As a counterpoint to
the large areas of glazing in the existing main terminal building, the form offers selected and crafted views
with smaller defined apertures. Its windows have deep sills that you can nestle into. Glazed fissures in the
roof between the rock-like forms offer soft natural daylight to the space and give then interior a warm
honey-glow. Further glazing on the bridge-like walkway separates the new terminal from the existing
building on both levels. It is this chasm which creates the theatrical and dramatic moment in the building.
Arriving passengers on the ground level traverse the fissure from the existing building. Departing
passengers on the upper level cross under the glazed roof bridging the two. This link is expressed as a
giant seismic gap. At this point, they can look down through small fractured glass apertures in the floor and
glimpse arriving passengers passing below and vice versa. The theatrical nature of the experience is
extended to the mezzanine, which is carved out of the ramp rock, and to the raised floor areas in the nose
of the rock where the café is located.
The new Terminal addition maximises all available space. It is constructed within both the extremely tight
constraints of the existing building and also the maximum build line determined by the apron layout and
aircraft manoeuvrability. In essence the new Terminal is constructed to optimise a pocket site left over from
six previous additions to the original plan. The construction methodology of building the addition as a stand
alone structure, plugged back in to the refurbished lounge, was simple and allowed the existing lounge to
operate whilst the addition were constructed.
The construction itself uses standardised and economical building components in a creative way. An
example of this approach can be seen in the composition of the carcass of the building which is constructed
of lightweight steel portals. The portals are lined with plywood and fibre-cement sheet on the interior.
Timber framing is used to create the exterior profile which in turn is clad in plywood and covered with a
waterproofing membrane. In some instances, the membrane is left as the raw final exterior finish. In others,
the membrane is overclad for durability in pre-weathered copper sheet. The interior floor is stone, windows
are aluminium and plywood is used for the window reveals.
Meticulous planning has gone into recycling, refurbishing and salvaging existing elements within the
building. This markedly reinforces the green features of the building. Examples of this include: the reuse of
the existing mechanical plant, the refurbishment of existing lifts, the reuse and salvaging of existing ceiling
tiles, security cameras, PA, toilet fittings, doors, door hardware, ights, emergency phones and gate signs;
existing lounge seats have been reupholstered, aerobridges refurbished where possible, toilets are
refurbished and existing shear walls which would otherwise have been very expensive to remove were
A strong Environmentally Sustainable Design feature of the new Terminal is the strategy of using ramps for
level changes as opposed to escalators or lifts where possible. Other features include; high thermal
insulation values, double and laminated glazing, plantation selected timbers, natural daylight via skylights,
reconstituted rubber floor coverings, low VOC’s coverings, environmental range paint specifications, low
flow bathroom fittings and an efficient low velocity mechanical plant for thermal comfort.
Planning efficiencies and future flexibility have been accommodated in the design in a number of practical
ways, for instance, flexible use of baggage swing belts, operable walls to allow for significant variations in
operations between international and domestic lounge and gate facilities; two aerobridges that can
accommodate code E and code D aircraft, additional AVSEC screening facilities, Customs primary line
stations, mezzanine space within the lounge for additional seating, exhibition space or further amenities.

© Studio Pacific Architecture in association with Warren and Mahoney


Photographs by Patrick Reynolds


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