Formulaic or flamboyant? How architects work to make airports feel local

Feb 20, 2020

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Airline and airport officials often say that if you’ve seen one airport — you’ve seen one airport. In other words, every airport is unique.

An airport may be distinct in its layout or weather patterns or air traffic, but most travelers only ever see an airport’s terminal and — in this age of soaring steel-and-glass edifices with expansive windows overlooking ramps full of planes — they could be excused for thinking that many of these newer terminals are more alike than different.

“Facades have become more flamboyant, if formulaic, with digitally generated confections of undulating glass and steel designed to dazzle the eye and create recognizable points of reference. (We must be somewhere.),” wrote Alastair Gordon in his 2004 book Naked Airport.

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368314 04: A traveler walks in the departure hall at Chek Lap Kok Airport April 26, 2000 in Hong Kong. The world's largest covered public space was designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster. (Photo by Michel Porro/Newsmakers)

Check-in counters stand inside the nearly completed terminal 2 building during a media preview at Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Korea, on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017. The new terminal is scheduled to open on Jan. 18, 2018. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Contemporary airport terminals often follow a formulaic steal-and-glass design — Hong Kong (top) and Seoul Incheon Terminal 2 (bottom) for example. (Top photo by Michel Porro/Newsmakers; bottom photo by SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images)


The challenge contemporary architects face is how to deliver the “world class” terminal that localities seek, while keeping a distinctly local flair. That flair, when done well, can set an airport apart from the pack.

Local gateways

“In a contemporary airport terminal, you can always see two steps ahead of you — great spaces allow that sense of depth and transparency,” said HOK design principal Peter Ruggiero at a talk on the future of airport architecture held by the Chicago Architecture Center in early February. Each airport needs to exemplify “transparency, flexibility and fluidity” — hence all of the glass — but the challenge comes when also ensuring that they “represent a place.”

Ruggiero was joined by architects from Safdie Architects and Studio Gang, all of which are working or have worked on recent major terminal projects, ranging from the new Terminal B at New York LaGuardia (LGA) to The Jewel at Singapore Changi (SIN).

Related: Inside The Jewel, the latest addition to Singapore’s Changi Airport


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The new LGA! New York LaGuardia terminal B eastern concourse (2018), by HOK. #airportarchitecture

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“In the jet age, a lot of airport designs were relating to and inspired by flight, the sky and being in the air,” said Studio Gang design principal Juliane Wolf.

Take, for example, the Eero Saarinen-designed terminal at Washington Dulles (IAD) that celebrated taking off on new (at the time it was built) jet airplanes. The design focused on the journey to the sky — not where the airport was located.


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Wet and raw. Washington Dulles International terminal (1962), by Eero Saarinen. #airportarchitecture

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“Now people are really excited to be on the ground again and out of the airplane. We [feel] that the moment you step out of the plane into the terminal you [should] feel like you’re in Chicago,” said Wolf, referring to her group’s winning design for the Chicago O’Hare (ORD) Global Terminal project.

The 2.2-million-square-foot structure will replace Terminal 2, itself a throwback to the International Style of architecture that defined mid-century Chicago. The plans call for a new Y-shaped terminal that aims to infuse the Windy City into the travel process.


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Chicago O’Hare Global Terminal proposal, by Studio ORD Joint Venture Partners. #airportarchitecture

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Every aspect of the building seeks to remind travelers that they are in Chicago — from the visible structural elements to the Y shape reminiscent of the confluence of the branches of the Chicago River. But apart from architecture buffs and geographers, those elements are not necessarily indicative of the Windy City to the passenger traveling from, say, Duluth to Nashville via O’Hare.

“That goes down to the experiences,” Wolf told TPG when asked how the average traveler will know the terminal is in Chicago. The plan is to create an environment with everything from interior “neighborhoods” that draw from the city’s dynamic landscape to locally inspired stores and restaurants, she said.

But a sense of a city goes beyond just experiences. Safdie Architects design principal Jaron Lubin said an airport needs to really be a “gateway to a place.” Las Vegas McCarran (LAS), he said, is a U.S. airport that does a decent job at this, using elements of local iconography from the “Welcome to Las Vegas” neon signs to slot machines to reflect its location.

LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 20: United Airlines passengers at McCarran International Airport (LAS) now get to use Terminal 3 for arrivals and departures on November 20, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Tourism in America's "Sin City" is slowly making a comeback from the Great Recession with visitors filling the hotels, restaurants, and casinos in record numbers. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
Las Vegas McCarran Airport uses iconic local imagery, including the famous “Welcome to Las Vegas” neon sign, to create a sense of place in its terminal. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)


“To that end, these are decorative rather than fundamental to the organization of the building,” Lubin said about McCarran. “More often, the long walks of airport terminal buildings express a generic retail space that could be anywhere in the world.”


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The neighborhood terminal

Lubin’s firm Safdie Architects designed the much-photographed Jewel in Singapore that opened last year. Expanding on the city-state’s aim to be “the city in the garden,” The Jewel has a rain-vortex waterfall in the center of a lush indoor forest built atop a shopping center and car park.

The Jewel, while located at Changi airport, is not actually a terminal. The forest-cum-mall is separate from the airport’s terminals where travelers arrive and depart, though they can drop off their checked bags in the facility. Instead, The Jewel plays on what may be a uniquely Singaporean trait of treating the airport as another one of the city’s many neighborhoods.

“People go hang out in the departures areas [at Changi], which is completely insane,” said Lubin. “It’s part of the city structure.”

The indoor waterfall at the Jewel Changi Airport. (Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty)
The Jewel at Singapore’s Changi airport has an indoor waterfall surrounded by a forest built atop a mall at the center of the airport’s terminal complex. (Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty)


Changi’s success in making The Jewel distinctly Singaporean is not easily replicated elsewhere. Outside of AvGeeks, few U.S. travelers actively seek to hang out at an airport to shop, eat or even take wedding photos.

Although travelers should not expect waterfalls at a U.S. airport anytime soon, they can look forward to local beers and coffee roasters, or even an airside garden as they fly around the country.


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The runway leads to #stumptownpdx. They say this is what it’s all about. #stumptownattheairport

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Whatever form contemporary airports take, one thing they need to be is a “welcome mat to a city,” said Ruggiero, who worked on the Terminal B project at LaGuardia.

Physically, the new LaGuardia terminal may not be the most distinctly New York structure, but it does have something that the old Central Terminal Building never did: a sense of the city’s verticality. Bridges elevate arriving and departing passengers over the aircraft ramp with — at least on clear days — Instagram-worthy shots of the Manhattan skyline. What better 21st Century civic welcome to New York could there be?

Featured image courtesy of Safdie Architects.

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