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Narita T3’s design team cut costs to the terminal by opting for mesh tarpaulin signs over conventional and illuminated signs.

In Japan, construction of large-scale public projects follow a “design-bid-build”  process in which various contractors are invited to bid on the project in question and pitch how they would meet the project’s architectural and cost requirements. In 2012, Narita International Airport Corporation (NAA) officials announced that a new terminal, specifically designed for low-cost carriers (LCCs), would be added to Narita International Airport (NRT) and opened the project up for bidding.

This bid method, determined by performance and cost, is often associated with poor design. But where other bidding contractors may have made this negative association to the project, Japan-based architecture firm Nikken Sekkei saw an opportunity to build something exciting for travelers to Narita’s T3 and in May 2012, the NAA selected Nikken Sekkei to complete the project.

With in-house designers, architects, engineers and experience managing 25,000 constructions projects across 40 countries, Nikken Sekkei was well-equipped for the challenge. The firm’s previous experience in airport design – including Narita’s Terminal 1 and New Chitose Airport – allowed the team to identify high-cost culprits of conventional terminals, while creating value for the low-cost carriers the terminal was being built for.

In a video production on the project, the team at Nikken Sekkei discuss the project’s design ethos:

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Wataru Tanaka | Nikken Sekkei

“This airport pursues complete low-cost, however we started by thinking about on top of the usual low-cost… The new types of exciting low-cost architecture we could make.” 


And for Nikken Sekkei, “exciting” architecture meant creating space for passengers. A facility route was created along the support beams, combining signs, lighting, air conditioning ducts and other facilities, laid out in a line within the steel frame. This allowed Nikken Sikkei to free the airport from a large-sized ceiling, creating the feeling and perception of space.

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Takao Goto | Nikken Sekkei

“To us, what low-cost architecture has been lacking, is the sense of excitement in the space. It was necessary to think about changing the negative elements of low-cost into positive elements. The idea was to create a stage for the stories of travelers, a space for travelers to expand their actions and behaviors.” 

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Yasumasa Hongo | Nikken Sekkei

“Considering what to subtract for the sake of “low-cost” is not creative and makes for dull meetings. Instead, once we start to think what can be combined and serve multiple purposes, we are able to turn the concept of “low-cost” into something positive.” 


The running tracks – just one of the many wayfinding characteristics built into the terminal’s design – were born from the challenge of not having a budget to install moving walkways. Creative agency and project design collaborator PARTY were the brains behind the terminal’s wayfinding system, and explain the concept behind the track colors:

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Naoki It | PARTY

“The blue running tracks express the color of the sky, and the uplifting feeling of traveling somewhere far away. The earth-colored running tracks express the sense of relief when people finally land in Japan after a long jouney. The idea is to use two colors as user-friendly signs to guide people.”

MUJI, who provided the terminal’s furnishings, were thrilled to take part in the project:

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Naoko Yano | MUJI

“When I heard about this project, the characteristics of LCC, and the concept of necessity minimum design, I felt sympathy toward how extremely close they are to the concept of MUJI. Considering the characteristics of LCC, how travelers are here around the clock, we created sofas for people to relax and even lie down for a rest.”

Since the opening of T3 in April of this year, the terminal’s design has received much positive attention from the media. The June 2015 issue of London-based magazine Monocle, describes T3 as “innovative, influential, and energizing” while Condé Nast Traveler calls it a “design destination.”

Watch the full video production to see exclusive footage of the terminal’s construction:

For more details on the unconventional design of Narita’s Terminal 3, read “Terminal Minimalism” in The Design Issue.