How to Design Around the Airport Identity Crisis
If you think you know how to complain about airports, just listen to Benjamin Bratton’s beatnik spoken-word fugue of polysyllables. “The airport is where the birth pangs of the Stack, the armature of planetary computation, are felt most viscerally,” the philosopher said at a fancy conference on airport architecture in Los Angeles a few weeks back. “Long ago, the ceremonial interface to the city may have been a gateway or bridge…. Now the airport is the interface to the city and nation-state.”
It’s an entry point marked by “the flattening affectless provisionality of boarding-lounge culture” and “that omnipresent media-and-candy matrix” built inside “this critical cohabitation of security and entertainment…. It is where police deep-scan your person while blending you a delicious smoothie, without irony or affect.”
Or as a two-bit standup comic might say: Airports, right? I mean.
But seriously, folks. As cities from Singapore to Los Angeles to Kutaisi, Georgia, are building more and bigger terminals for more and more money, the vexing problem of airports, how do they work even has taken on a new character. Designers, architects, urbanists, artists, security specialists, logistics experts, and retail planners have all buckled into the airport-making cockpit, just in time for a full-on identity crisis. It was the common thread connecting the speakers at the Aerial Futures: Leading Edge symposium.
Airports today are supposed to help move people onto and off of planes, but they’re also supposed to retain people for indefinite periods of time and ply them with entertainment—food, shopping, and so on. They’re supposed to be welcoming symbols of nations and cities, but also serve as intentional choke points for the security state. And they’re supposed to evoke the grand symbols of aviation’s golden age for pennies on the dollar.
See? Identity crisis.
“The airports in the world that are leading-edge, that people find pleasant to fly through and enjoy being at, are places like Incheon in South Korea, Changi in Singapore, Hong Kong International,” says Max Hirsh, an urban theorist at the University of Hong Kong and author of Airport Urbanism, when I call him after the conference. “Those countries recognize that the airport and the airlines are part of their brand.”
And sure, Changi has fun places for kids to hang out, interesting shopping, and is building a 90-foot-tall indoor vortex waterfall. Hong Kong has an Imax theater. These Asian mega-airports even bring in people who aren’t flying anywhere. As Hirsh points out, the side of Singapore where Changi sits doesn’t have much else in the way of large, air-conditioned open space. So of course people get married there.
But what about something home-grown? Like … the relatively new International Terminal in Los Angeles?
Part of the Aerial Futures conference was a tour of the $2.1 billion terminal, which opened in 2015. That included the steel skeleton of its $1.6 billion extension on the other side of the tarmac; a long tunnel will connect it to the existing bit. (Under-tarmac tunnels have long been a way for airports to distinguish themselves; O’Hare’s is the colorful classic.)
In LA, passengers enter the new terminal via a claustrophobic TSA neckdown, then cross through a window-lined atrium and into a vaulted space centered around a huge, pixel-covered spire that plays bespoke movies. Giant screens are everywhere in the space, which also features the complement of high-end boutique shops you might expect, and a food court.
“I think this building type is going to be the most important type of public architecture in the 21st century,” said the terminal’s architect, Curtis Fentress, at the conference. “Some of the spaces that were created here are making [the experience of a terminal] much better for people.”
And it’s true that LA packs a lot of different kinds of space under one cathedral-like roof. It has cozy nooks for people to sit and charge their devices or look out windows. It has shopping. It has boarding gates. It has separate, elevated “sterile” corridors for pre-customs international travelers. A terraced internal ziggurat features slightly nicer sit-down restaurants and business- and first-class lounges. The lounge at the top has that most exclusive of airport spaces, an outdoor terrace.
“They lifted the boat for anyone who has at least enough money to fly on a commercial airliner, and I think that’s a great accomplishment,” says Nik Hafermaas, a designer with the firm Ueberall and media professor at ArtCenter who has designed art installations at airports around the world. But, he adds, the problem every airport terminal also has to grapple with is socioeconomics—with serving bespoke-suited first-class frequent fliers as well as the hoi polloi in coach. That’s why so many new terminals look like malls, with the restricted-entry lounges discretely tucked away. “Is it cheesy? Yes. Is the ambition transparent? You can’t solve social disparities by just Disneyfying everything. That doesn’t work,” Hafermaas says.
Maybe that’s the real identity crisis: making a place fit for the whole world. More than one panelist at Aerial Futures showed images of the famed TWA Terminal at JFK Airport in New York. Designed by the modernist Eero Saarinen, eventually used by JetBlue, and soon to be a boutique hotel, the terminal arguably stands for everything that was supposed to be glorious about air travel, a swooping, Logan’s Run domed city for the 1 percent who could afford to fly. “It had a single purpose, that thing. It was the height of the jet age, the height of fascination and a naive view of the future,” Hafermaas says. “It was a real-life stage set.”
Yet airports aren’t just for the upper crust anymore. Most Americans who fly do so once a year, maybe twice. (Nearly one in five Americans has never flown at all, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported in 2013.) The challenge is to design an airport that accounts for their discomfort and confusion while also catering to road warriors with up-armored rolling bags and noise-cancelling headphones with custom ear cups. (That LA terminal has a decent steak joint and a sushi bar. The most popular restaurant is the Panda Express.)
To resolve those tensions—and maybe satisfy airlines and security services, too—architects and planners are finding some new approaches. “I think making an airport as local as possible is a great strategy toward improving the experience,” Hirsh says. “Some people live in this paradigm that an airport should be a global space, super-cosmopolitan, but we’ve seen a reversal of that trend. What you want is a unique experience, not a generic one.” That means good barbecue and jazz at Austin-Bergstrom, country singers at Nashville. BWI sells Baltimore-style crab, and Vancouver has one of the world’s great collections of Northwestern native art. Munich’s airport has a beer garden.
The identity crisis comes from terminals and the land they sit on not really knowing what they are anymore. Agora? Mall? Concert hall? Gateway? New technologies are about to grind up the fundamental elements of airport design. When transit, ride-sharing, and autonomous cars comprise the bulk of trips to and from airports, as most planners think they eventually will, the giant parking lots that dominate the area in front of the terminals—the “forecourt”—will have no purpose. What goes there instead? No one knows. Maybe space for protests against immigrant bans.
Same for security. “There are going to be big changes in facial recognition technology. Maybe you won’t even have to stand in a line, because they’ll know who you are when you walk into a terminal,” Hirsh says. “That maybe gets rid of one of the biggest divisions in airport planning, between the land side before security and the air side after.”
As you might expect from someone who has designed art installations that change color and move according to real-time air traffic control data, Hafermass thinks art has a role in making the experience of transiting through an airport more tolerable. “Art is not just decoration, not just Muzak. We want to have art that is contextualized with the location, the situation of travelers, topics that have to do with technology and travel and society and surveillance,” he says.
My optimistic pitch for the terminal of the future is all about embracing the terminal-ness of it all. Transparency! Bigger windows, with heads-up displays showing the flight numbers, destinations, and industrial history of every plane. Cutaway floors that show the guts of the airport—the fuel lines, the baggage-handling conveyor belts, the catering trucks loading pallets of sous-vided chicken, the crates full of eensy-weensy bottles of booze. Don’t hide the terminal behind Hermès and Kiehl’s. If all those chef-branded American bistros share one kitchen, let me see it. Intersperse arrival and departure data on all those screens with the ATC radar. Let me tune into tower radio traffic via a streaming app on my phone.
If I have to be in an airport, let me be in the airport. Yes, of course, build the flexible spaces so people who just want to drink a Martini and stare at Facebook until take-off can do so in noise-cancelled comfort. Shopping? Sure. Why not? But these places don’t have to exclude coach fliers to be aspirational, to celebrate the engineering miracle of sending nearly a million pounds of machinery and humans 7.5 miles high at 600 mph. If you’re like me and want the option to marvel at the mechanical ballet of it, the what-a-piece-of-work-is-man-look-on-my-works-ye-mighty of it … well. Only one identity can truly reintegrate all the postmodern multiples: airport.