Meet the new airport: temple, mall, design hub

The airport has finally arrived.

For years, airport terminals were mostly strings of cramped, stuffy little buildings that were continually added onto like a child's Lego construct; they had about as much architectural significance as a prefab garden shed.

But a major wave of airport construction and expansion around the world in recent years is giving many cities terminals that are veritable temples of travel. Airports worldwide will invest about $450 billion in infrastructure improvement projects over the next decade, according to Manfred Momberger of Momberger Airport Information in Rutesheim, Germany.

They are the aesthetic equivalent of the cathedral-like railroad stations of yore.

"Airports are our most visible public buildings," says Stanis Smith, head of Architectura, a Vancouver architectural firm that is a leading player in airport design. "They are the first and last impression of the city for visitors and locals."

"We're seeing an air terminal as a new kind of space," says Mark Gottdiener, a sociologist at the University of Buffalo. "New airports are airy, with large windows, connecting the air side with the land side. Airports have architecturally come into their own."

And not a moment too soon, either, he clearly feels. As the title of his new book, "Life in the Air: Surviving the New Culture of Air Travel" (Rowman & Littlefield), suggests, he takes a rather dark view of the contemporary passenger experience.

It is precisely because today's air travelers are under so much stress that architecture is hugely important, he emphasizes. The "visual connection" that good airport design makes - that supports what Mr. Smith calls "orienting and way-finding" - helps travelers understand where they are and where they are going, and can reduce the stress.

Three billion travelers a year

On one hand, Professor Gottdiener notes, air travel has "exploded" to nearly 700 million passenger trips annually in the United States and 3 billion globally. Here in Toronto, traffic through Lester B. Pearson International Airport, Canada's busiest, has expanded from 19 million passengers in 1989 to nearly 29 million last year - the equivalent of nearly the entire population of the country. What's more, traffic was up another 7 percent this past April over the year before.

"Air travel has become the major means by which people connect, not only on business trips, but for vacations and to see relatives," says Gottdiener.

All this may sound like good news, but it has its down side in terms of congestion, scheduling caprices, and other woes besetting the traveling public. "The system is strained to its limits and beyond," Gottdiener says. A particular hot button for him: a new tendency of airlines not just to delay flights but to cancel them outright, leading to legions of stranded passengers. "Customer rights are being violated," he says. "This is a national issue."

All the more reason to want the airport to be a pleasant place to hang out, rather than just a cluster of Quonset huts or a sterile, hypermodern wonder of technology. Indeed, one of the trends is away from the high-tech concept, which Mr. Smith says has been "overdone." "We're far more interested in soul, in character, in Gemütlich-keit, in a sense of place," he adds, in a phone interview as he is in the air on the way to Frankfurt. "We've tried to do this in each of our projects," he says, mentioning Edmonton; Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt; and Santiago, Chile.

The Vancouver airport, on which his firm worked, has won accolades for its airiness and views of the mountains. The new Denver International Airport, with its circus-tent-like fabric roof evoking the Rocky Mountains, is another that gets praise for its manifestation of "place."

Similarly, a sense of place is part of the design here in Toronto, where work is under way on what is known as "Terminal New." This is the eight-story building that is the centerpiece of a 10-year, $3 billion airport development. A pinkish-gray granite wall, a sort of geological allusion to the Ontario escarpments, is planned for the area between ticketing and departure gates.

Bruce Kuwabara, an architect with the Toronto firm of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg, says that the architecture of airports is finally catching up with that of other fashionable venues for leisure activities, such as cutting-edge restaurants or hip boutique hotels à la Ian Schrager of Studio 54 fame.

One of his favorites is the Hong Kong airport terminal, designed by Sir Norman Foster. "It's so beautiful and understated," he says. "It's got a lot of vaults that create a sort of ripple. It's not just one big volume."

The modern conception of an airport, Mr. Kuwabara says, "is more a public building than a machine for processing people."

But alas, airport authorities and airlines do tend to think of "processing" passengers. Tim Goodyear, a spokesman in Geneva for the International Air Transport Association, the airlines' trade association, cautions: "There's sometimes a mismatch between architectural dreams and economic reality." Given the need for airports to be expandable, he adds, "if you want to talk about 'airport as temple,' you also have to think about knocking down a cathedral wall and adding a couple of extra chapels."

Toronto's multiphase expansion program, for instance, foresees handling up to 55 million passengers a year sometime after the year 2020.

The simplest designs can best serve travelers

"The function of an airport should drive the form," says Mike O'Brien, director of airport development for IATA in Montreal. But too often, he says, "functions end up being secondary to the architectural concept." Some of best-functioning airports, he suggests, have the simplest designs. Singapore's Changi airport, for instance, "is a fairly basic concrete building, with wide corridors, plants and greenery, good lighting," he says. "It's a calm, restful, and structured environment."

As Gottdiener puts it in his book: "The best of the new airport spaces foster a contemplative atmosphere that massages fears rather than forcing passengers to confront them. With a strong sense of place and an increasing mixture of malls, hotels, entertainment facilities, workout rooms, chapels, and upscale dining, the best of the new air terminals are places in which people can spend considerable time, despite the ordeals of boredom, layovers, and canceled flights."

Terminal designers are facing up to the fact that the "kinetic elite," as frequent travelers are called, may have a lot of "dwell time" on the ground before them, and it's in everyone's interest for that time to be well filled.

One phenomenon no one who has flown recently can have missed is the airport-as-mall concept. Taking advantage of a captive audience, caught between security checkpoint and departure, airport shops have been raking in "spectacular returns," says Peter Behnke of the Airports Council International, the trade group for international airport authorities. This is despite - or perhaps because of - the introduction of "main street pricing" policies intended to assure shoppers that merchants aren't taking advantage of their captive status.

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