How this new airport in China blends natural and artificial light

The lighting in Shenzhen Airport’s new third terminal helps guide travellers on their journey, while complementing the building’s unusual design.

The airport is in constant operation, so its lighting design needed to balance natural and artificial illumination over a 24-hour cycle. Built to cope with burgeoning demand for air travel to and from the city, the 1.5km-long new terminal building is wrapped in an undulating double-skin roof punctuated by thousands of hexagonal skylights, which together create a honeycomb motif.

It was designed by Italy's Studio Fuksas with lighting design by Speirs + Major.

Daylight streams into the terminal through the skylights, creating a moving play of light and shadow on interior surfaces. The honeycomb motif is repeated internally, where a predominantly white and reflective stainless steel palette enhances the natural lighting effect.

The aim of Terminal 3’s interior lighting system was to make the overall experience for travellers, which includes moments of both movement and pause, more enjoyable. Minimal walking distances and clear orientation were identified as crucial factors.

The system was also designed to echo the play of daylight and, through variable light levels, smooth the transition from day into night, using fixtures concealed in the roof void, in line with its undulations.

As well as serving as a home for the lighting fixtures, the void between the roof’s two skins has been made a feature itself: it is internally lit to create a ‘paper lantern’ effect that both lifts and frames the space at night.

Beneath the roof, different light intensities are used to mark out gates, furniture and signage. The idea is to help passengers move more quickly through the space, making the whole terminal more efficient and comfortable.

After conducting a number of studies into how terminal users would perceive the light and the impact of possible light distraction and uniformity, Speirs + Major decided to taper the lighting close to windows and glass walls in order to preserve outward views.

On the other side of those windows and glass walls, there is external lighting designed to give Terminal 3 a strong after-dark identity. The building sits on reclaimed land so, at apron level and below, the team used a saturated wash of pale cyan light to create the illusion that the terminal is floating on a lagoon. A cyan wash on the air bridges that take passengers from the terminal to their planes creates a visual link between the two.