Fly Airlink - Freedom of the African Sky

Kruger Park Gateway Airport

Airlink acquired the Phalaborwa airport from Foskor

Phalaborwa, the true gateway to both game and golf, is the central gate to the world's most famous nature reserve, the Kruger National Park. The airport is situated approx 2 km from the Phalaborwa Gate, providing easy access to the northern camps such as Letaba, Olifants, Mopani, Shingwedzi and Punda Maria as well as many famous private game lodges. Admire the Park by open 4x4 vehicle, or take a safari on the Olifants River amongst hippos, crocodiles and other wildlife. A bush walk offers a close encounter with the habitat of the Parks wildlife.

Design of the airport

Profile by the designer, Oliver Wills

Kruger airport

I have travelled fairly widely throughout the world and as a result seen many airports. My experience has been that they are always merely people processing plants. They are buildings for the most part geared towards getting people into aeroplanes and out - or from aeroplanes and through, with perhaps allowing them to eat or drink something in passage and ablute! They are not buildings designed to evoke emotion or raise the human spirit. Sure some are aesthetically pleasing, the architecture is progressive/different but little thought is given to them as being the first ambassadors of the town/country which they represent. For the most part you could put an airport from say Alice Springs, Australia in a similar sized town in Europe and no-one would be surprised or any the wiser. They are for the most part anonymous in terms of the aesthetic relating to the country/town/context in which they are erected. It was my intention to break through this paradigm. I sought to create a building in which the form/aesthetic was representative of the town of Phalaborwa being the Gateway to the world-famous Kruger Park Game Reserve without the functionality of an airport being impaired. My intention from the outset was to create a building that a tourist - full of excitement for a whole new adventure - would like to see. I wanted to start their journey into a game reserve on the right note - give them a taste of what they were about to experience.

I was interested to note that your second question refers to my airport as a bush lodge. This was very affirming for me in showing that I achieved my objective - although I would prefer if the project was referred to as what it is - an airport, with an African aesthetic, if you like. I guess that the tendency of people to refer to this airport as a bush lodge is as a result of the perspective that airports can only look like airports. Whatever that's supposed to be!?

The animal sculptures were crafted by a world-renowned Zimbabwean sculptor - Adam Madebe - who I'd worked with on an earlier project. His sculptures complemented the theme. I wanted people to get off the plane and immediately be aware that this wasn't your average airport. All the poses and placements - from the guinea fowl scratching in the earth for food to the leopard leaping - create a kinetic dimension to the scene. The baboon sits on a rock, watching disembarking passengers enter the airport. Further along the arrivals link a snake is coiled on a rock and in the waterhole area a life-size giraffe stoops to drink. High above - on a ten ton leadwood - sits a vulture (donated by me to the project) surveying the scene. Adam was briefed to create each piece to be perfectly crafted and placed to appear as natural as they would in a real life bush situation. In the same way in the departure section you pass a male baboon in the act of defending an imminent attack by! a leopard. At the entrance to the airport a female baboon perches on another leadwood watching as people file in. All pieces were initially sculpted in clay on chicken wire and steel framework and then metal plates were either heated or hammered into shape on an anvil and welded together over the clay. Once everything was complete the clay was then removed. The animals were then treated with rust preventing poly-urethane varnish.

It was important to me, however, that an overly rustic aesthetic impression was avoided. The copper domes on the parapet walls at the entrance and arrivals/departures wings were to raise the African bushveld aesthetic to more of a high-tech, dependable, professional level. Similarly the circular concave impressions of the green skirting and door mouldings reinforce this intention and provide a visual link to the domes and a unifying element.

The zebra pattern on the floor of the concourse was created from a scan I made of a zebra skin. The spine of the zebra runs down the center of the concourse. The offshoots from the concourse to the check-in and to the arrivals and departure arcs are adaptations of this. I used it to reinforce the theme and to add animation and depth to the scene. It represents some real hard labour for the contractors as each piece of Marley tile had to be cut exactly to the pattern I described on the floor with a piece of chalk attached to the end of a long stick!

The same is true of the snakes that slither into the arrivals concourse and out of the departures concourse. These were designed to create flow and movement and fun. A lot of the airport was about fun - after all many of its users were about to start their vacation or were just returning from one.

The balance of the floor was made to present the sand colour of a dry river bed. The chequer-plate inserts were positioned to define the transition between the zebra skin pattern and the river sand floor. They were also intended to lift the design from rustic to solid/dependable and to be a small concession to the high-tech finishes that airports normally consist of.

We created the hoof prints of the animals in the floor at baggage collection with moulds taken from hoof prints of real animals. I was amused at the similarity I saw between the traffic of animals at a waterhole and the actions of passengers milling around waiting for their baggage to be collected! The compass pattern on the floor was an idea I had to orient people who were perhaps coming from another hemisphere.

The water feature created the separation of the arms of arrivals and departures and is a visual experience from the moment you enter the airport from the town. It also provides the interface between the aeroplane and the airport buildings so that the experience of the bush is immediate. Being populated now by various local birds it also provides an interesting visual for waiting passengers. It is also functional in being the water supply for fire-fighters, should it ever be necessary.

All the rocks are real and were brought in and placed by the contractor on my direction. As were all the leadwoods.

Having used many unique elements in this project I wanted to avoid conventional basins and taps - even if they were somehow linked to the theme. As most of the people using the airport would be briefly passing through there was unlikely to be a need to fill a basin. So I created a sloping surface which would deal with water run-off. I experimented until I came up with the nozzles which create a fountain for people to wet and rinse off their hands. There are 7 nozzles for rinsing hands and two placed separately - the idea being that if you blocked one of the two the water would shoot higher and would serve as a drinking fountain. I'm not sure how many people realize this. But then having a little mystery is not a bad thing. The glass spheres set into the slope and lit from below are to add interest. A design consideration was that it needed to be vandal proof. I thought I might be stretching people by not putting front walls to the toilets, but I wanted to keep them! right up front with nature throughout the building. The stainless steel cables prevent any invasion of people's privacy.

The rocks and stones positioned at various points around the airport were placed there instead of conventional seating and to bring nature into the building. They were all varnished and cleaned to this end. Unfortunately this has proved too much for some people - perhaps those in very smart suits and designer bush wear - and so some really grotty chairs have been brought in.

Throughout the airport there has been a substantial use of dead Leadwood trees - both in decoration and structure. These were kindly sourced by Sullwald Builders (the contractor) and I made use of them as another unifying feature. One very large specimen is used as a bench seat for up to 10 people - cantilevered off the wall at baggage collection for those who don't want to sit on the rocks. Others were used to form an interesting departure from the usual-type balustrade along the car hire corridor. A huge inverted leadwood stump provides a centerpiece above one of the circular benches. As the airport has very few doors closing it off (the main concourse is permanently accessible) my idea was that any furniture needed to be built in and therefore immovable.

The counters of the car rental booths are curved for functionality with a lower counter positioned to rest suitcases/briefcases on while they sign in. The small circular domes that decorate these and various other elements in and around the building again reinforce the circular unifying motif.

The doors, made of moranti - stained dark to look like ebony - have a ship porthole set in as part of the circular motif theme. The appearance has had no impact whatsoever on functionality - by design. Throughout the project I sought to depict and highlight some of the unique and awesome natural wonders of our country - particularly those of the region travelers were entering after their flight out of the city of Johannesburg.

I had an excellent client in Rodger Foster - the CEO of Airlink. He briefed me to "Africanise the Airport" and thereafter I was given carte blanche. If only more clients could operate at this level of trust I think we'd see a lot more innovative architecture around.

I must attribute some of the success of this project to Herbert Knoetze of Sullwald Builders. He put his heart and soul into the project and many of the ideas came from brainstorming sessions we had on site. Many elements worked as well as they did due to his contribution and efforts in their construction.

Comments have come from some VIP's, including Vali Moosa and other dignitaries. All have been exceptionally positive. Many people from the town came to the airport from the beginning of construction and kept their own record of its progress - such was the level of interest. A general impression is that the Airport has become a tourist attraction in itself.

With thanks and kind regards
Oliver Wills