User-Friendly Design Takes Off At Airports

By Diane Mehta

Airport design is on the verge of a major overhaul, according to Bill Hooper, principal at Gensler Architects—a firm that has designed more than fifty airports around the world. With the globalization of air travel, spurred by new business in emerging economies and the proliferation of low-cost carriers, new and modernized airports are coming online all over the world.

It’s not a moment too soon. Though according to Airports Council International (ACI), air traffic dropped 6 percent between December 2007 and 2008, ACI’s director general Angela Gittens predicts that as long as there’s a rebound within a few years, airports worldwide will handle 11 billion passengers by 2027, leaving a 1 billion shortfall in passenger capacity.

Trends point to a shift from monumental to user-driven design.

The new trend among airport architects is to design from the user’s point-of-view—a shift from the monumental, ego-driven buildings of the past where you made your way from one bottleneck to another. On a fundamental level this means improving the anxiety-filled experience that now characterizes air travel. Visually, the answer is light-filled, soaring spaces with floor-to-ceiling glazing, such as the “civic plazas” at the just-built Indianapolis International airport and at Raleigh-Durham International’s Terminal 2, which were designed to evoke the grand architecture of nineteenth-century train stations.

But it’s not just aesthetics. Harvesting natural light—a key principle in sustainable design—drastically reduces energy and electricity costs. “It used to be pedagogical to try to achieve a LEED rating,” explains Roger Duffy, a partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). “But we discovered the link between cost savings and sustainable design are contingent, symbiotic.” Going green is a no-brainer for airports, which are keen to remain economically viable in the long-term while facing rising costs and competition from other regional hubs.

The new “roofatecture” is part technology, part design.

Key to implementing this principle is what the HOK Group’s director of design Ali Moghaddasi refers to as “roofatecture,” where the shape and undulation of a roof gives an airport its iconic look. “These days the roof is becoming more a part of the technological aspect of the airport,” he explains, “so you may be designing the roof to take photovoltaics or to harvest light into the belly of the building.” 

The new roofs, designed to permit and diffuse light, are as striking as they are functional. SOM created skylights with automated roof louvers that modulate light at Singapore’s Changi Airport. Fentress Architects stretched a tensile fabric roof over Denver International that mimics the shape of the Rockies and lets light in while allowing heat to escape. Gensler put a curved glass roof on San José International’s new concourse, with a fabric mesh draped below to fracture and pattern the sunlight with shade.

Gensler’s asymmetrical, undulating façade for the North Concourse at the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport is made of perforated, anodized aluminum to reflect the technological heritage of the region while providing shade against the sun.
At Qatar’s New Doha International Airport, HOK’s wave-like roof design resembles sand dunes; its sloped form also keeps sand from accumulating on the roof during sandstorms.

The cutting edge is about creating “mini-moments” for the traveler.

Hooper thinks the cutting edge isn’t just about efficiency and beautiful terminal design. “The series of mini-moments is where the future of it really is. It’s a series of small snapshots in which traveler continually evaluates how the terminal is working for them,” he explains. “I can imagine a future where you go to kiosk and put in a thumbprint instead of a credit card,” he says, anticipating guideposts to track his thumbprint and deliver notifications or directions. Meeters and greeters, people with handheld devices at your service, would be “like Walmart on a grand scale.” It’s not a pipe dream, he says, citing service at London City Airport, where you go from curb to gate in ten minutes, and where, Hooper has heard, someone will meet you curbside to usher you through if you’re late.

The new design revolution offers more elbow room, loftier security areas, better wayfinding with simpler signage, and solutions for our collective need to be plugged in at all times. Connectivity is a big issue, says Nathan Smith, an aerospace and defense industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan. “Wireless technology is a leader, an offering some airports charge for and others give away for free. Airports are capitalizing on that, offering recharging stations to plug in everything, like little mini work stations.”

Low-cost carriers, buoyed by business travelers looking for cheap fares, are driving some of these perks. Jet Blue, for example, is the only terminal in JFK that offers free wifi. They also have a thirty-minute plane turnaround time (40 percent faster than most airlines), twenty security lanes (an answer to the past decade’s claustrophobia-inducing queues), and more retail near the gates.

How do you reconcile airports as economic engines and civic experiences?

The encroachment of retail is a reminder that airports are economic engines—48 percent of their revenue now comes from non-aeronautical sources, Gittens says. 

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, the world’s busiest airport, has 234,000 square feet of concessions. While newer airports are outfitted with spas and luxury retailers, like Harrod’s at Heathrow and DKNY at JFK, some argue they take it too far. The retail at Heathrow’s new Terminal 5 so overwhelms the signage that it’s difficult to find your gate.

Some airports want to take it even further, with plans for sprawling airport cities ringed by free economic zones. “Airports are becoming more than airport terminals," says Tony Vacchione, a partner at SOM. “They are becoming everyman’s travel mode, and that has changed people’s opinions about how it needs to be integrated into larger cities.” Dubai’s aerotropolis, with Al Maktoum International Airport at its center, will span 54 miles, to the tune of $33 billion. While it’s an extreme example, it reflects the increasing role Middle Eastern hubs play in international commerce and transit traffic across the world. In this sense, Dubai is iconic. “Airports are very significant civic experiences, not just a palace to air travel or a functional tin shed,” HOK’s Richard Spencer underscores.

In emerging markets, making architecture regional contributes to a national identity

This is especially true in the Asia-Pacific region, the world’s fastest growing market. According to Smith, China will build one hundred new airports in next decade and India will have constructed 97 by 2020, with the biggest fleet growth at 6.3 percent. These emerging economies have a statement to make. They want cutting-edge airports with cultural resonance.

At SOM’s 5-million-square-foot Chhatrapati Shivaji International in Mumbai, hundreds of porthole-sized tinted lenses filter and color natural light coming in from the skylights above. The jali-like screens reminiscent of Rajasthani palaces will block sun along glass curtain walls while multicolored lenses placed under skylights filter natural light. From above, Beijing’s new airport looks like a giant glittering dragon. At Fentress’s Incheon International in South Korea, the roofline’s catenary steel forms refer to the steel towers and cables of cargo ships at Incheon Harbor. For countries that want to make a statement, airports are a poignant mix of history, commerce, and national identity.

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