5 Groundbreaking Airports That Are Must-See Destinations in Their Own Right

5 Groundbreaking Airports That Are Must-See Destinations in Their Own Right

By Amy Dvorak
From massive cocoons in Azerbaijan to a sprawling public park in Berlin, you’d be surprised at what you can find at these world-class airports.

Despite chatty seatmates and de-icing delays, air travel never truly loses its glamour—especially if you’re in one designed by a world-renowned architect. From the TWA Hotel at Eero Saarinen’s John F. Kennedy Airport to Zaha Hadid’s Beijing Daxing International Airport, we scouted the most impressive airports around the globe that should be on your radar—and the ones under construction that are sure to be spectacular.

Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport

The Shenzen Bao’an International Airport—designed by Massimiliano Fuksas—is inspired by nature, taking inspiration from the manta ray. Inside, white "trees" double as air conditioning.

A honeycomb design envelops Shenzen Bao’an International Airport and lets in light.

An alveolus-shaped facade comprises metal and glass panels that can open. 

Heydar Aliyev International Airport

Cocoons fill the Heydar Aliyev International Airport terminal in Baku, Azerbaijan, which was designed by Autoban. But they're not just for good looks. Inside, you'll find kiosks and cafes along with other amenity space.

Through natural materials, colors, and the warm, inviting cocoons, Autoban has disrupted airport design as we know it with Heydar Aliyev International Airport.

The Heydar Aliyev International Airport, in Azerbaijan's capital of Baku, receives more than six million passengers a year. Concave glass allows light to fill the warm interiors, which is home to live trees. 

The original departure/arrival board anchors amenity space at the TWA Hotel at Kennedy International Airport, originally designed by Eero Saarinen. Just outside sits Connie, an airplane-turned-speakeasy that you can board for cocktails, attracting not just travelers and architecture enthusiasts, but also locals, says manager Anthony Bonacasa. "It's very nostalgic for a lot of people," he says. Employees who worked there in the 1960s will visit, creating a communal feel as Bonacasa describes. "It's unpretentious, and we work to make it comfortable."

A third bank of colorful Knoll's Tulip collection sits just around the bend at Paris Café by Jean-Georges wrapped in millennium pink leather. Over what might be the simplest, fluffiest omelette you've ever had, Frank Sinatra fills the air. Outside, an old Volkswagen Bus is parked alongside a vintage French Citroën car, and it truly feels as though you're in the 1960s. The restored TWA Hotel could have easily been noticeably contrived, yet it's true to its origins—including the authenticity of the furniture. (We know, because we peeked underneath to check.)

The Sunken Lounge, which reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, is the heart of the TWA Hotel. The plush, red carpet is the same you'll find in the long, minimalist tunnel entry, where indirect light illuminates the curved wall, which results in no shadows.

Beijing Daxing International Airport

Honoring traditional Chinese design, the new Beijing Daxing International Airport is organized around a central courtyard. Designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, the airport opened in September 2019.

The radial design of the Beijing Daxing International Airport maximizes the number of gates, while also offering quick access to the central core with passenger amenities.

The Beijing Daxing International Airport was built for growth. It is already the world's largest single-building terminal and is expected to receive a whopping 72 million passengers annually by 2025.

Sprawling across 32 million square feet, Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport is one of the world’s most eclectic public spaces. Home to the famed Berlin Airlift from 1948 to 1949, this enormous, monumental airfield ceased operation in 2008, and reopened its doors when residents rallied together to transform the abandoned site into a public park for all to enjoy. Now, Tempelhof’s main hall is the departure point for a new kind of voyage. But people still run the wrong way up the people movers when no one is looking.

Berlin's Tempelhof Airport is larger than New York City's Central Park and is twice the size of Monaco. The airport was constructed by the Nazis from 1936 to 1941; however, it reopened as an eclectic city park in 2010. The project received the Symbol of Engineering Architecture award in 2011.

On the Boards

In design development or under construction, following are a few more first-class flight centers we eagerly await.

Midfield Terminal, Abu Dhabi International Airport 

After delays, the Midfield Terminal Complex at Abu Dhabi International Airport is now expected to be open by year's end. The largely column-free structure relies on arches, creating an open and airy space.

Amsterdam Airport Schipol

One might think Ludwig Mies van der Rohe had something to do with the forthcoming Amsterdam Airport Schipol. Yet it's KAAN Architecten behind the design of the new terminal, set to open in 2023. We look forward to the open design, clean lines, and black eaves.

O’Hare International Airport Expansion

Chicago's O'Hare International Airport is one of the 10 busiest in the world. Studio Gang's $8.5 billion expansion should help alleviate some of that congestion, while also doubling its use for community engagement, including pop-up events and live music.

Helsinki Airport

The phased expansion of Helsinki Airport Terminal 2 is slated to open in 2021 with its volume designs dubbed, "City Hall" and "Security Box." The statement piece, though, is the undulated, pre-fab wooden roof that marries it all. 

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