Design for Airports

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

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 just discovered that their luggage has landed in Murmansk. Murmansk airport is the only exception of this otherwise infallible rule, and archtects have, on the whole, tried to reflect this in their designs.

RM: From Douglas Adams, ” The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.”

Allison Arrieff (AA): 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.

RM: So when it comes to the ugliness and general dysfunction of airports.

AA: They’re a little bit off the hook?

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

RM: 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.

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

RM: 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.

AA: An archtiect I spoke to said “Nothing is more quickly obsolete than an airport building.” The technology is changing so fast.

RM: 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. 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.

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

RM: So once you wind yourself through the pleasant experience that is security, you are on the airside.

AA: 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.

RM: Now the assumption is you are absoultely 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.

AA: 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.

RM: 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.

AA: 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.

RM: 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.

AA: 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, thousands and thounds of square feet, to what’s called the airside, which is where the planes actually come into the gate.

RM: 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 it spits you out into a couple of folding chairs to put on your shoes and stow your laptop.

AA: 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 jewlery and whatever else back on, you can see everything that you’re about to enter into. Retail gates, seating, all that sort of stuff.

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

AA: 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 walkmens, 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.

RM: 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.

RM: According to Arieff, human factor studies shows 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.

AA: What I heard a lot in talking to many many architects about airports is, 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.

RM: 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”

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

Comments (2)


  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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