DESIGN FAILS: VIENNA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT

Main photo by Werner Huthmacher

As an addition to the last article about airport designs in general, I want to take the opportunity to take an in-depth look at our local Vienna International airport. How does this airport perform in terms of functionality and design?

Vienna international airport old main hall – photo by Timothy Claassens

In terms of style, this airport clearly offers a wild mix. There are fragments of the original building from the sixties, which now form the unused Terminal 2. Like Saarinen’s TWA building, the original structure celebrated the new mode of transportation with an elegant building, featuring a main hall with a suspended, gently curved roof, large open spaces, big glass windows and open decks with unobstructed views to the airfield.

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The original building from the sixties was remodeled, extended and turned into a labyrinthine shopping mall with a central plaza, that tried to mimic the density and atmosphere of Vienna's first district

The mid-nineties saw a series of extensions, with a new check-in area and two new concourses. The original building from the sixties was remodeled, extended and turned into a labyrinthine shopping mall with a central plaza, that tried to mimic the density and atmosphere of Vienna’s first district.

However, local architect Franz Fehringer seemed to have more interest in creating superficial effects, rather than spatial qualities., He used a broad formal repertoire of postmodern motives that were certainly in fashion for the season, like diamond shaped tilings, circular windows, decorative pillars as well as an eclectic mix of expensive, yet tasteless materials. The architectural highlight, if you want, was the new airside facade that connected the concourses. It consisted of a slightly curved curtain wall that got interrupted by an articulated, meandering crack. Postmodernism galore!

COMMERCIAL DECORATION

Terminal „3“ is the airports’ latest addition and was designed by an Austrian and Swiss planning partnership, namely Baumschlager Eberle and Itten Brechbühel. Its distinct, minimalist style reflects a western Austrian and Swiss attitude on architecture but stands in harsh contrast to Fehringer’s postmodern interventions, making it impossible for the different terminals to „melange“ into one complex and instead remain as unfitting, detached pieces.

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When minimalism is not appreciated in the sense of „less is more“, but rather seen as „less is a bore“, it opens the possibility for subsequent "enrichment" that is not in the hands of architects and designers anymore

What is worse, is that no one involved in the planning process of terminal 3 seemed to understand the impact of minimalism, let alone foresaw, that this style is still not well-understood in the city of baroque. Viennese do not have a Swiss mindset, but quite the contrary and there lies a danger: When minimalism is not appreciated in the sense of „less is more“, but rather seen as „less is a bore“, it opens the possibility for subsequent enrichment of sorts, that is not in the hands of architects and designers anymore. The lack of form and visual sophistication is seen as a weakness.

Terminal 3 – photo by Roman Boensch

Under these circumstances, a big white surface is like an invitation for decorative use. Within our capitalistic system, this decoration is likely a commercial one. Advertisements, once bound to poster-, screen- or billboard formats, have now befallen complete architectural elements in terminal 3.

The facades of parking garages are fully covered in advertisements, ceilings are used to hang an armada of commercial banners and even the pedestrian bridges that connect the driveway with the check-in hall get fully branded by a local tabloid. The formal minimalism and the abundance of any colors followed the well-intended idea, that people would fill the building with color and life, yet this conception simply abetted the advance of commercial junk space. At terminal 3, every attempt to create architectural integrity is nipped in the bud.

Terminal 3 arrival hall – photo by Owen Ricpolidish

LACK OF INTUITIVE ORIENTATION

While the importance of intuitive orientation has already been mentioned, Vienna airport seems to aim for the opposite. Between the entrances on the landside and the gates on the airside lies a confusing and disorienting complex, a collection of buildings from the last 60 years, all weirdly connected by angled, narrow corridors, low ceilings, curvy ramps, and weirdly proportioned halls. A walk from the train station to the gate can easily require six level changes on a zigzag path as if this building wanted to refine the baroque art of disorientation by creating a sense of dizziness in its users.

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A walk from the train station to the gate can easily require six level changes on a zigzag path

Finding the right way can be a challenge in itself, since the labeling of parking garages, terminals and concourses turns out to be quite kafkaesque: While the terminals are numbered with „1“, „1a“ and „3“, there is currently no number „2“ in operation. Passengers may depart from any of these terminals, but all passengers arrive in terminal „3“.

Gate labels start with the letters „B“, „C“, „D“, „F“ and „G“ plus an added number, but there are no „A“ or „E“ gates. „B“, „C“ and „D“ gates have their own concourse, while „F“ and „G“ gates share one. Ultimately, garages and parking lots get ordered by an illogical combination of letters and numbers, that are „K1“, „K3“, „K4“, „P3“, „P4“ and „Pc“, again skipping the numbers and letters between.

Vienna international airport signage – photo by Skyscrapercity

Interestingly, the lack of intuitive orientation gets addressed by two contradicting strategies: While a walk from the underground train station to Terminals 1 and 1a deliberately intensifies the confusion by letting important signage fade at neuralgic crossing points, the concourse in Terminal 3 clearly tries to overcompensate the architectural deficits with an overwhelming amount of signs, letting the ceiling vanish in an unappealing sea of color-coded letters and numbers.

VIENNESE WALTZ

The list of design fails goes on: Once the disoriented passenger has made it through security checks, he finds himself in a maze-like shopping mall, as described above. At the same time, airline lounges and even restrooms are reliably located in the remotest of places, hard to find and only reachable through ridiculously narrow stairs and corridors.

Vienna international airport corridors – photo by Skyscrapercity

In terms of functionality, narrowness seems to be the airports’ greatest weak point. After disembarking the plane in terminal 3, arriving passengers must separate from transferring ones in a hip width corridor by finding a poorly signposted junction, make a sharp turn, then take a narrow escalator, make more turns, walk a claustrophobic corridor towards the main building, then take another escalator to reach the baggage reclaim. Some more turns through customs will finally release you into the, you can guess it by now, narrow and tubular arrival hall. Welcome to Austria, you just swirled your first waltz!

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.