Design for Airports

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

[Airport announcement]

Voiceover:
“It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression “as pretty as an airport.” Airports are ugly. Some, very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort. This ugliness arises because airports are full of people who are tired, cross, and have just discovered that their luggage has landed in Murmansk. Murmansk airport is the only exception of this otherwise infallible rule and architects have, on the whole, tried to reflect this in their designs.’

Roman Mars:
From Douglas Adams’s ”The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.”

Allison Arieff:
I think so many airports were not designed for the things that they have to do right now. And so, it is all fixing as you go. There wasn’t some great master plan.

Roman Mars:
So when it comes to the ugliness and general dysfunction of airports-

Allison Arieff:
They’re a little bit off the hook?

Roman Mars:
A little bit off the hook. But there’s plenty of room for improvement.

[Airport announcement]

Roman Mars:
When I spoke with Allison Arieff about the design of airports, she said to me, if all airports simply played Brian Eno’s album “Music for Airports” over the speakers, every airport would be better.

Allison Arieff:
My name is Allison Arieff and I write about design and sustainability for the New York Times.

Roman Mars:
I say this to serve not only as an introduction to Allison Arieff, but also so that you’ll know that she is someone whose judgment is perfectly true.

Allison Arieff:
An architect I spoke to said, “Nothing is more quickly obsolete than an airport building.” The technology is changing so fast.

Roman Mars:
And the thing that all airports are still trying to catch up to now, the thing that forced airports to change the most the fastest, was 9/11. Security screening has come to dominate all aspects of airport design. But we’re going to focus on just two effects. The first is that, because of the unpredictability and time required to go through security, you no longer dawdle on what is called the “landside” of the airport.

Allison Arieff:
Landside is basically the curb appeal part of the airport. Parking is still considered landside, the ticketing area is still considered landside, the wonderful lines you have to wait in to TSA, which are also changing, by the way. Most airports, of course, have had to make room for those lines, so all that is landside.

Roman Mars:
So once you wind yourself through the pleasant experience that is security, you are on the “airside”.

Allison Arieff:
The people responsible for building airports really kind of followed the bus station model, where it was like a holding pen. We just got you here as long as we need to put you on Amtrak or put you on Greyhound. And airports were sort of on that model too because the assumption was you were just passing through.

Roman Mars:
Now the assumption is you are absolutely not just passing through. The assumption is you are going to be staying. A while. So newer airports are designed with that in mind. And a good example of this new thinking, described in a recent New York Times article by Arieff, is the new T2 terminal, designed by Gensler Architects at San Francisco International Airport.

Allison Arieff:
T2 is the new terminal for American Airlines and Virgin America at San Francisco International Airport. And it’s one of the first terminals to be designed post-9/11.

Roman Mars:
The last terminal constructed before T2 at SFO was the international terminal that opened in December of 2000. It still feels pretty new, but you can tell right away that the trajectory of airport design was going in a very different direction in the year 2000 than what is prioritized today.

Allison Arieff:
San Francisco’s main international terminal, for example, is all about the ticketing area. You walk in and it’s just this massive amount of space.

Roman Mars:
It’s open and airy and actually pretty wonderful to experience, but in the new world of TSA, all that building doesn’t make any sense.

Allison Arieff:
If you actually sit and think about it, you realize that all the exciting stuff is on the landside. Your eating, your shopping, etc. All that happens before security. In the new T2, all the good stuff is saved post-security because, as we all know, everyone’s just rushing to their plane and they don’t want to linger at all. So while there is a very generous, well-designed ticketing area, they’ve given way more square footage, like thousands and thousands of square feet, to what’s called the airside, which is where the planes actually come into the gate.

Roman Mars:
What’s also different about T2 is that they’re really incorporating the security procedures in the design from the get-go. When you look at security now, it often looks like the TSA just set up shop yesterday with retractable barriers, and then it spits you out into a couple of folding chairs to put on your shoes and stow your laptop.

Allison Arieff:
The new T2 actually has what they call a “re-compose zone” which is like a lounge for putting your clothes back on after you get through TSA with, you know, some sculpture and lots of natural light and skylights. And once you are at that spot, putting your shoes and your belt and your jewelry and whatever else back on, you can see everything that you’re about to enter into. Retail gates, seating, all that sort of stuff.

Roman Mars:
I’d never given much thought to shops or restaurants in airports, but the thing I need, not want, I need when I travel is a place to plug in my phone or laptop and probably both.

Allison Arieff:
There are many many more banks of outlets because, again, you think back to pre-9/11, which is now just about ten years ago, the ubiquity of personal technology was not… there were walkmans, right? They didn’t need to get plugged in. Now everyone’s got something. At every age, every sort of traveling segment, so of course older airports don’t have enough.

Roman Mars:
I was at O’hare recently, sitting on the floor next to this businessman. We were huddled like hobos around this single outlet in this three-gate area.

[Airport traffic control transmission]

Roman Mars:
According to Arieff, human factor studies show that passengers want to stay within 250 feet of their gate. And T2 at SFO addresses this anxiety. If you’re buying a paper, grabbing a coffee, sitting down at the restaurant, all the gates are visible all the time because of the open floorplan.

Allison Arieff:
What I heard a lot in talking to many many architects about airports is that at the top of the list, is letting people feel in control of their experience and having a sense of where they’re going. And really sort of designing so that all of the anxiety that comes naturally with that whole process now is alleviated to the greatest extent. And so, a good sort of environments designer, who can really intuit where people’s hangups are going to be, is key to a successful project.

Roman Mars:
The noble goal is to try to design away all airport anxieties, no matter how experienced the traveler. But who knows? In ten years, I could be re-doing this story and contrasting T2 against some new super-airport that solves all the problems of usage that T2 failed to anticipate.

[There’s no place to park my jetpack! Fail.]

Roman Mars:
For anything complex, perfect design is a moving target. But odds are, your luggage will still be in Murmansk.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by me, Roman Mars. With support from Lunar, making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW, 91.7 local public radio in San Francisco, the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco, and the Center for Architecture and Design. You can keep up with Allison Arieff at the “Opinionator” blog of the “New York Times.” And I should mention that the Douglas Adams quote from the top of the show was read by Francesca Panetta who is the producer and creator of “The Hackney Podcast” which is consistently stunning and amazing, and you should subscribe. Although it does have a dearth of Francesca Panetta’s voice in it. You probably heard more of her here that you will ever hear on “The Hackney Podcast.” Thank you, Fran. To find out more and get all kinds of links, go to the website. That is 99percentinvisible.org.

  1. I had a “driveway moment” with this one! Terrific!!!!! I just emailed the link to my son (now 14 yo) has been interested in design since 3 yo! (really) and recently has been talking about being a pilot (and loves to design plane interiors).

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