On the frontier of every technological innovation, a high level of excitement about design solutions and possible applications can be found. When Eero Saarinen’s futuristic TWA Flight Center opened at New Yorks’ JFK airport in 1962, the aviation industry was at the peak of excitement. Flying, as a means of transportation, was still fairly new and had just started to become affordable for the broad middle-class. Around the world, some impressive terminals were erected that celebrated this human achievement, just like grand train stations did some decades ago.
Once icons of a modern era of global transportation and symbols for a society in flux, most airports have now become generic and soulless places.
The early beginnings of the industry allowed for playfulness and rigor in design and an unbiased and fresh attitude that created masterpieces like Saarinen’s TWA terminal. With its’ self-supporting shell construction and seamless design, it quickly became a showcase for the rising aviation industry. Yet unlike train stations, many of those early airports did not survive, let alone manage to stay in service until today.
While the TWA building has become a heritage site that is currently being transformed into a hotel, many others have been demolished or dramatically remodeled to serve the tightened demands of today’s industry. Once icons of a modern era of global transportation and symbols for a society in flux, most airports have now become generic and soulless places. What happened?
Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal – photo by Ezra Stoller
With the advent of jumbo jets, increased passenger traffic and raised security issues, both the industry and the legislators found new technologies that would cope with these challenges, yet overrule aesthetics at once. For planners, airports have become the most complex building tasks. In fact, it would not be too far off to simply call them gigantic, engineered machines.
Today’s airports keep a strict regime over its users, transforming them into mere objects. Passengers are other-directed into the demeaning choreography of standard procedures within highly restricted transit areas, while being closely monitored along the way. Like in prison, it strongly limits the free will of its occupants, however, on a voluntary basis. Transit areas are highly restricted zones that can only be entered or left if the building authority permits.
Even if we think about nerve-wracking waiting times at numerous counters, security checkpoints or gates, an airport is a building efficiently designed around flows. Flows of humans, cargo, energy or information. All architectural elements must be subordinate to these principles. Levels, escalators, one-way corridors, containers, walls or other barriers must constantly sort and separate the flow of matter into various categories. Under such conditions, a humans’ freewill gets completely oppressed.
Heathrow Airport duty free shops – photo by Marc Smith
It gets a little worse: Apparently, places that keep their users like chickens in a slaughterhouse provide fertile soil for shady profiteering. Cunning capitalists have found subtle strategies to turn transit areas into profit machines, giving passengers the illusion of free will through shopping opportunities.
Many airports have finally lifted the already unstable boundaries between the once public mall space and the privately owned retail space. After the security screening, departing passengers are now directly released into a labyrinth of shelves that is a duty-free shop. What a cynical name! On the way to their gate, passengers have no other choice but to run past a series of intense perfumes, shiny jewelry, and oversized chocolate bars and while the gate numbers do not get revealed until the last second before departure, there is plenty of time to linger.
It is no wonder that airports rank amongst the least popular buildings. If done right, a good airport can be rewarding for millions of users.
„The unconsciously bewildered shopper, rendered docile, cannot help but drift into the prepared pathways and patterns of immersed into externally induced consumer activity, unfocused but exquisitely suggestible to gentle but firm environmental cues.“ writes Sanford Kwinter in Wiring and Waning of the World. Under such circumstances, it is no wonder that airports rank amongst the least popular buildings. As designers, we should question these developments and look at the few good examples. Eventually, if done right, a good airport can be rewarding for millions of users.
Good airports maintain a smooth flow. They allow passengers to run the gauntlet of procedures in a dignified manner. The worlds’ best airports even do a little more. They show mercy to the tormented travelers by offering escape routes from the controlled pathways.
Singapore airport, for example, features lush gardens and a rooftop swimming pool, Helsinki airport provides a sauna for its passengers, whereas the airports of Bangkok and Seoul have opened golf courses within their premises. These services are not just smart sources for extra income, they provide an experience that is fundamentally different to the ordeal of standard airport procedures. Carrying luggage, undergoing security screenings and finding the correct ways in a vast building demands concentration, while being in a garden, a pool or on a golf course fosters contemplation.
Singapore Changi Airport – photo by Steve Lacey
What could be more dignifying for a human body than a plain natural sensation, like being immersed in the elements of the local climate, water or vegetation, after countless hours spent in a fully controlled high-tech machine?
When talking about successful airport designs, one must look at Norman Foster’s contributions, particularly Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok airport. Opened more than 20 years ago in 1998, it is still a benchmark in airport design. There are two reasons.
Firstly, its formal language proved to be timeless thanks to Foster’s technophile approach to architecture. His particular style still seems to be the most appropriate for this task. Secondly, its internal organization was carefully designed around a smooth passenger flow. Thanks to its intuitive layout and design, navigation through the building is a breeze. From the arrival on the landside to the departure on the airside, there are almost no turns to make and hardly any escalators to use. If so, they are laid out in the direction of flow.
Since most passengers were expected to arrive by train, the attached station was designed with vertically separate platforms, so that departing passengers would disembark the trains from Hong Kong right on the departure level, arriving passengers embark the trains directly on the lower arrival level.
Hong Kong Airport – photo by Andre Sitoy
Once you enter the terminal, the ceiling of the barrel-vaulted roof dominates the vast, open space and emphasizes the direction of flow by creating parallel intersection lines that serve as subtle directory leading to the airplane. Foster managed to leave the roof almost unobstructed from any signage or commercial billboards to show its full effect and beauty. At certain spots, passengers arrive in balcony-like situations, allowing an overview of the vast building and beyond through a fully glazed facade onto the airfield, further enhancing a sense of scale and orientation.
Hong Kong Airport roof – photo by Tsuo-Chien Chung
While floor plans have become increasingly occupied by technical equipment, the roof may serve as the last remaining architectural authority.
What’s important to note is that Foster was one of the first designers to understand the importance of the roof as the quintessential architectural element of every modern airport. While floor plans have become increasingly occupied by technical equipment, the roof may serve as the last remaining architectural authority. Foster has repeated this motive for the consecutive airport designs of London’s Stansted and Beijing’s Capital Airport.
Meanwhile, other designers have incorporated similar ideas: Zaha Hadid architects will open yet another brand-new airport in Beijing’s south later this year and it goes without saying that the star-shaped terminal will easily surpass Norman Foster’s dragon-shaped terminal, which currently ranks as the world’s largest structure, in size, costs and roof extravaganza.
Christian Schwarzwimmer is an Austrian architect and designer. In his posts, he is discussing the complexities of our built environment and highlighting whether architects and designers are finding the right solutions to our urging problems.