written by:
May 13, 2009
Originally published in Think Smaller
as
Terminal Illness

The challenge for airport designers is to consider the complex function of an airport and then cap it off with some truly striking architecture. Most airports get at least some of it right. Some get all of it wrong, or fail miserably in key respects.

Exterior view of Los Angeles International Airport
Los Angeles International
2 / 2
Heathrow International Airport interior

Worst International: 
Heathrow International, London

Heathrow is famously confusing and perhaps an easy target for airport complaints. Passengers traveling through Heathrow’s attractive new Terminal 5 will notice much-needed improvements, but overall the airport lacks a cohesive plan and is woefully inadequate for the number of passengers coming and going. (Airport management admits Heathrow can comfortably serve 45 million passengers annually, when in fact more than 65 million people pass through each year.) In older terminals, signs are lost behind support structures and construction scaffolding, and in some cases they steer you in the wrong direction (and suspiciously through the duty-free shops). Security bottlenecks and interminable check-in lines break the flow at every turn. And an endless series of drab hallways hook and crook between connecting flights. Another new terminal is in the works, and is badly needed. Heathrow’s renaissance is still a few years off.

Worst in the United States: 
Los Angeles International

Exterior view of Los Angeles International Airport
Los Angeles International


Los Angeles is the entertainment capital of the world? You wouldn’t know it at the Los Angeles International Airport, where there’s nothing inter-esting to do to kill time during a 
layover. Like Heathrow, LAX suffers from a half century of insufficient and clumsy expansion. It is best described as a collection of drab terminals 
connected by a traffic jam, which starts 
out on I-405 and coagulates on a circular drive that loops around the Landmark Theme Building. (The Theme Building, looking like something a 1950s sci-fi set designer dreamed up, is LAX’s only architectural positive.) The terminals are painfully overcrowded and seating is limited—–
likely as not, you’ll wait for your flight seated on a suitcase or the floor. Clear signage and amenities are scarce. The crying shame of it all is this is a primary gateway to Asia and the Middle East, with an international cast of characters strolling through its portals. The scene ought to be inspired and dynamic, rather than stressful and depressing.

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