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An Introduction to Airport Design

As anyone who has been to Peru, 
or Bali, or Timbuktu can tell you, travel is not merely the experience of going
 somewhere. Travel design must convey a complex message: of place, of pleasure, of international exchange.

Carrasco International, Montevideo
Carrasco International, Montevideo

Suitcases, boarding gates, and airport concourses are all designed to serve 
a necessary purpose while saying something positive about travelers and the places they visit.

Terminals are the Taj Mahals of travel design. The best are gateways to 
optimistic futures. Like a cathedral, the terminal’s colossal concourse inspires 
a feeling of exaltation before sending
you on your way. It is a locus of constant motion, and yet the traveler 
is encouraged to pause for a plate of 
raw oysters or a relaxing cocktail, 
or to sit on a comfortable bench and gape at the terminal’s celestial ceiling, upon which the cosmos have been painted. The traveler needn’t take 
notice of the building’s true genius: 
its immensely intricate network of invisible thoroughfares and jetways spanning the distance from waiting gates to take-off.

At the dawn of the jet age, in the late 1950s, airports began to assume 
a majestic scale, as if to affirm their new position as the world’s primary gateways. Building an airport was—–
and still is—–an act of optimism and modernity, and mid-century designs reflected that. The symbolism of flight and movement as metaphors for 
human progress became almost as 
important as the logistical concern 
for getting greater numbers of people on and off planes.

TWA Terminal, JFK Airport, New York CIty
TWA Terminal, JFK Airport, New York CIty

Eero Saarinen’s luxurious TWA terminal at JFK Airport in New York City perfectly embodies mid-century dynamism. Its graceful roof reaches outward like the stretched wings 
of a gliding bird. Inside, its sweeping, curved lines, shafts of light, and free-flowing spaces are all carefully designed not just to suggest fluid movement but to churn foot traffic 
in and out.

Incheon International, Seoul
Incheon International, Seoul

The rapid acceleration of global exchange in the 1990s inspired a new generation of airports, many in Asia, 
to welcome and dazzle world travelers. Bold futuristic styles exploit extravagant building shapes made possible by advances in engineering. Near Seoul, Korea, Incheon International’s main passenger terminal is an amorphous beauty resembling a metallic jellyfish from outer space. Beijing’s striking new Terminal 3 projects a similar intergalactic confidence, at least when viewed from the air at night. The forthcoming terminal at Carrasco International in Montevideo, Uruguay, is a sleekly stylized update of the old flying saucer concept. All of these airports beg to be taken as messages from the future, reflecting upon the desires and intentions of the people who built them and shaping the impressions of the millions who pass through.

Barajas Airport, Madrid
Barajas Airport, Madrid

A more welcoming approach can be found in Richard Rogers’s exuberant interiors for the new Terminal 4 at Madrid’s Barajas Airport. The terminal is structurally familiar, but it is executed with a refreshing warmth and flair. There is nothing revolutionary in the terminal’s effective use of wood or in its vibrant, Almodóvaresque color scheme, but in the context of an airport it feels decidedly new. Here, the intent is to ease the transition from the air 
to the actual place.

There will never be a final word on airport design, as airports are in a constant state of flux. New terminals are built in response to new complications, such as increased traffic and heightened security. Old terminals, no matter how beautiful, are continually modified. “To design a terminal, you have 
to think ahead,” says Ripley Rasmus, 
a design principal for HOK, who is currently involved in the new Indianapolis airport, the first new airport to be 
built in the United States since Septem-
ber 11, 2001. “But on a certain level, 
all airports are construction zones.”

Terminal Three Beijing Airport
Terminal 3, Beijing

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    101 Airports

    Modern air travel is about far more than merely making it from point A to point B. The journey is the destination, and we take a look at airport design and how terminals are evolving: which innovations take flight and which are left grounded.

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