Designing Airports for Tomorrow, by Scott Bergstrom
In the last two decades, the airport has emerged as an important architectural representation of the community it serves, on par with museums, courthouses and convention centres as indicators of a sense of place. The idea that an airport is a visitor’s first and last impression is now accepted wisdom. Communities are responding accordingly, creating memorable airports that are simultaneously efficient and architecturally bold. Just what will the airport of tomorrow look like? While aesthetically airports will be as diverse as the communities in which they are located, the best airports will have several features in common.
Although the first airports were little more than repurposed barns and utilitarian Quonset [Nissen] huts, airport architecture became bolder in the 1920s with the advent of regularly scheduled passenger flights. No longer just a hobby for daredevils, flight gained popularity to become a more exciting and appealing alternative to travel by train or steamship. From the 1930s to the 1960s, architecture celebrated this exciting frontier by integrating the concept of flight into the design. Even today masterpieces from this era, such as Eero Saarinen’s wing-shaped TWA Flight Center at JFK, are as important to the history of 20th century architecture as they are to the history of flight.
The idea of bold and celebratory airport design reemerged in 1995, when Denver International Airport (DIA) entered service. Designed by architects Curtis Fentress and James Bradburn, DIA’s distinctive peaked fabric roof evokes both the nearby Rocky Mountains and the Native American teepees that once dotted the plains where DIA is located. The idea of flight – the source of so much inspiration to a previous generation of architects – no longer fascinated the public the way it once did. Instead, DIA celebrated the geography, culture, history and future of the American West.
Cities around the world soon followed suit, showcasing elements that make their culture and location unique, or employing a globalised, contemporary design vocabulary that reflects their international status. While airports built in the last 20 years vary extensively in design and aesthetics, they share a sense that what takes place within airport walls is important and deserving of great architecture. The charmless utilitarian boxes that characterised airport design in the 1970s and 80s are being replaced by designs which reflect the airport’s importance to both the global economy and the city’s brand image.
The most radical changes to airports being designed and built today, however, are internal. Inside the newest and best airports, little remains as it was just a decade ago. Ticketing was once a labour-intensive process involving lengthy queues and an army of agents. Today, most passengers arrive at the airport with boarding passes already printed or on the screen of their smartphones. If they intend to check bags – less and less likely thanks to airline fees – electronic kiosks handle the task quickly and efficiently. Common-use kiosks are also gaining popularity. Shared by several airlines, they allow passengers to enter the airport from virtually any kerbside door and print their boarding passes from any kiosk, regardless of their carrier.
Security is another area that has changed profoundly. For many, a security agent checking boarding passes is the first person with whom a passenger may interact at the airport. It is also where most passengers who printed their boarding passes at home encounter their first, often lengthy, queue. Certainly airlines – to say nothing of the passengers – would wish it otherwise, but security is here to stay. The apparatus necessary to execute security is constantly evolving, with new technologies coming on line and new procedures being put in place. After all, new and perceived threats will always necessitate new solutions.
Few will deny that technology has done much to improve air travel, but while these enhancements are great when everything is running smoothly they are of little help – compared to having staff to assist – during times of disruption. Given the inevitable unpredictability of technology, architects are called upon to make the experience from “kerbside to airside,” as Curtis Fentress would say, as flexible and pleasant as possible. Open spaces, intuitive signage and natural light are increasingly used to make airports welcoming while enhancing flexibility to accommodate ever-changing needs.
As passengers spend more time beyond security checkpoints, dining and shopping options are proliferating. No longer are airports the domain of fast food outlets and news stands. At LAX’s modernised Bradley International Terminal, currently under construction, Fentress and his team incorporated more than 100,100 sq ft (9,300m2) of dining and shopping options. And it’s not merely global brands such as Chanel and Hugo Boss that are taking advantage of new retail opportunities; shops selling merchandise indigenous to the area are also staking a claim. Passengers eager for a souvenir or last-minute gift are able to find wine from local vineyards, handcrafted toys from local artisans, and other items that build on an airport’s unique sense of place and community.
Not long ago service industries such as salons and spas were unheard of in airports. Now they’re doing a brisk business thanks to busy travellers whose only downtime is often the hour or two spent between the security checkpoint and the boarding area. It is not uncommon for a busy executive from, for example, Dallas to have a regular colourist at the Atlanta airport where she catches her connecting flight on her commute to Dubai. And Incheon International Airport has become a wedding destination in itself, with a chapel located in close proximity to the spa and salons.
Technology is a catalyst, revolutionising airports and the way we travel. Driven by these advances, the airports of tomorrow will be more personalised and streamlined. In the future, holographic projections of airport employees may guide you through the airport, perhaps suggesting amenities along the way that relate to your personal interests. Mobile devices will be increasingly ubiquitous, as more passengers use them to book flights, select seats, choose meal options, access boarding passes, view flight updates and communicate with friends, family and co-workers. Technology will continue to enhance passenger experience, ease the stress associated with travel and improve travel efficiency.
Tomorrow’s cities will be shaped by their airports in the same way that great cities of the past were shaped by access to seaports and railways. These commercial hubs, or airport cities, will be linked to the outside world primarily by air routes. Though few passengers ever see it, airports power our economy in ways that go far beyond ferrying passenger traffic. High-value, low-weight goods such as electronics, as well as perishables such as food and flowers, usually make their transoceanic journey by air. The smartphones from China, roses from Kenya, and sushi from Japan, add up quickly. According to Los Angeles City Councilmember Janice Hahn, a single round-trip international flight to LAX brings US$623 million and 3,120 jobs into the local economy annually.
Low-cost carriers are spurring the rapid development of low-cost, few-frills airport cities. Airport Weeze, Germany’s fastest growing airport, is located on the border with Holland and serves as a hub for Ryanair. More than 500 business and residential buildings can be found on the airport’s 1,532-acre (620h), with even more ambitious plans set for the immediate future as Airport Weeze’s cargo and passenger capacity expands.
Air travel is currently very hard on the environment, yet there is much architects can do to mitigate harm done by the airport itself. San Jose’s Terminal B, for example, became the first airport in the American West to receive LEED Silver certification. The terminal was designed to be a proving ground for principles of sustainability with the incorporation of occupancy sensors, intelligent HVAC systems, natural lighting, natural heating, and energy efficient glass. The net result is a building that exceeds efficiency standards by almost 17%. Yet it was in the terminal’s construction that the most impressive results were achieved: the vast majority of steel used was recycled, two thirds of the wood came from sustainable sources, and 90% of construction waste was diverted from landfills and either recycled or reused.
There are no second chances when it comes to building the airports of tomorrow. Because of the time and cost involved, cities commissioning them must get airports right the first time. The most successful of these airports will be architecturally bold, internally flexible, and environmentally efficient. Once these elements are in place, they will become the cornerstones of tomorrow’s economy.