Northern Lights

How important is lighting within an airport complex? For many it wouldn’t ordinarily register, unless it veers from one extreme to the other. Passengers are also unlikely to demand that lighting is particularly innovative, with concerns mainly centring on delays and ease of use.

However, Keflavik Airport, Iceland’s main international hub, has decided to re-envisage the Aurora Borealis – also known as the Northern Lights and one of the biggest drivers of tourism to the country – as a light show in the terminal, as part of a wider expansion project.

“For many the airport serves as a strong first impression, setting the initial tone upon arrival, and likewise it is the last thing you experience upon departure,” explains Daniel Blaker, creative director at Nulty, the UK-based lighting design consultancy that led the project.

So, what can passengers expect?

Northern LightsNulty began work on the project in 2014, following a brief from Isavia, operators of Keflavik, to create a more emotional experience. “It was our intention to celebrate the height of the main departure / arrival terminal hall [by] drawing the eye upward,” says Blaker. “[It was] originally painted deep red and as a result the space always appeared dark.”

The ceiling framework has itself been used as a tool, adds Blaker, hiding pieces of lighting equipment from view.

Mirroring the Aurora Borealis

Northern Lights

In essence, the pattern and colours mirror the Aurora Borealis via a live link of meteorological data. Nulty calls it a “theatrical” performance, one that can change in real time.

In addition, the light show links to the airport’s internal systems, altering the speed and colour of the show according to footfall in the terminal. Deep saturated colours during the peak, and subtler tones and more “tranquil movements” in quieter times.

“This is reminiscent of the activity of the Aurora Borealis,” says Blaker. “Quiet activity is reflected by more subdued sheets of greens and yellows, while higher activity results in fleeting strikes of red.

“The lighting is deliberately dramatic but also required to be functional, using shielded high level LED sources to provide general lighting to the public space beneath.” For example, adds Blaker, security screening areas have to have a certain level of functionality.

The challenge was not so much integrating the technology, but rather the physical equipment, says Blaker.

“[We had to] ensure that the design was as clean as possible,” he explains. “Cable routes, mounting trays, brackets and luminaires, had to allow for full control, while seamlessly blending into the structure of the ceiling without any trace.

“The principal challenge to the lighting designer is to balance the practical requirements in line with that of a well-considered space.”

Northern Lights

The pictures are striking and there’s no doubt Keflavik and Nulty have created something that grabs the attention of travellers. However, is all this necessary? Will people, once they have looked up and taken it all in, really appreciate the message that is being conveyed?

Says Blaker: “Trips are an emotional journey as well as a physical one. Therefore this heightened state of awareness can be enhanced with positive narratives, not only achievable through the built environment but also in the quality of experience in general.”