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Light in Wayfinding: An Analysis on Kansai International Airport

Part 2 Dissertation 2004
Winston Chu
University of Newcastle Newcastle Australia
Have you ever travelled by air?
Was it easy to find your way through the airport, whether it be to the gate lounge or the arrival hall?
Did you rely on signage?
Were the signs helpful or confusing?

The process of one searching his or her way towards a destination is called wayfinding. In airport terminal buildings where complex changes of directions and levels often occur, it becomes quite problematic.

With airport terminal continuing to grow, the issue of wayfinding is becoming increasingly challenging for the designer.
Will airport terminals become a compilation of ineffective and perplexing signs?
What other architectural alternatives can we explore?

Human beings are phototropic; which means we are always attracted to the brightest spot. Therefore light could offer possible design solutions for wayfinding in airport terminals. If so, how do we manipulate it?
Brightness? Darkness? Light gradations?
Direct light? Reflected?
To create identity? Or focus? Or to define boundaries?

Renzo Piano’s Kansai International Airport in Japan is believed to have accomplished successfully in exploiting light to assist passengers to navigate through the terminal building.

The fundamental intention of the research study was to examine;

“How can light be manipulated to assist passengers’ wayfinding in an airport terminal?”

The paper introduced the concept of wayfinding and described the common human responses; physically and psychologically. This was followed by a theoretical study of the nature of light which included the history of light and descriptions of its use by various architectural masters. Selected projects were used to clarify these descriptions. Finally, a case study was conducted on the Kansai airport to analyse the techniques employed by Piano in manoeuvring light as an essential guiding element. Although one of the more exemplary case studies of the use of light in airport design, the analysis revealed that there is still much to learn.

Indeed, the research has unveiled some challenging results……..

Winston Chu


Semester 1 5th year students are required to identify a research topic that is of significance to their architectural design project. They are then required to critique relevant literature aimed at developing a research question. The research question must then be answered by selecting an appropriate research methodology. This particular dissertation indicated a comprehensive and critical analysis of the theory related to light and wayfinding in airport architecture. The case study critique indicated fresh and challenging insights based on a sound and logical research methodology; including a unique series of graphical analysis techniques which the student developed himself. The paper reflects a high level of research maturity based upon an interdisciplinary research study design.

2004
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