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Airport design vocabulary that moves you emotionally, today and tomorrow

May 25, 2010

By Dian Hasan | May 24, 2010

Washington Dulles International Airport, Washington DC, USA

Design: Eero Saarinen, Finland. Completed: 1962

Eero Saarinen, an important proponent of modernist architecture, had the uncanny ability to capture the imagination of flight and evoke those feelings in an edifice. Saarinen gave modern aviation what are probably two of the most iconic airport terminals, Washington Dulles and the TWA Flight Center at JFK airport, in New York City.

The spacious terminal building of Washington DC’s international airport is structurally exciting both outside and in. A huge concrete sheet is slung between two asymmetric rows of concrete hooks, creating an inviting and dynamic curve as you approach. Invisibly within the concrete, it is steel suspension-bridge cables between the hooks that support the weight of the concrete roof, which Saarinen described as “like a huge, continuous hammock suspended between concrete trees.”
Sadly Saarinen died in 1961, a year before he could witness his creation open.

In the world of architecture, airports command an interesting challenge. They are concurrently showcases of efficiency, cathedrals of awe, hubs of human and flying machine activities, and cocoons of security. The challenge that rests on the shoulders of designer, engineers, programmers, security specialists, and an unending host of other specialists with specific skill sets must be able to capture all this and package into an edifice that can move people, both literally and figuratively.

Airport design is all about connecting emotionally with the international travel community, which translates into anyone, anywhere, at any time. Practically the entire human race, first-time air travelers and seasoned frequent flyers. Here’s a glimpse of the latest in contemporary airport design from around the world.

There’s so much potential to improve airline travel in so many ways with the creation of a better experience, deliver a sense of freedom that was previously unavailable to all but the wealthiest of travelers. Sustainability and energy efficiency are extremely important. There’s a trend of pushing cars farther away from the terminals and improving access to public transit with better rail links and easy-to-use connections. Quieter airplanes make it possible to close the distance between city and airport, which will cut down transit times.

Today’s architects must reconsider the basic structure of airports. If they land planes on an incline to assist in deceleration and have runways end on top of the terminals to eliminate the need for taxiing, they can save billions of gallons of fuel each day. It’s not that radical of an idea. They can utilize the concept to make airports more efficient.

As anyone who has been to Boston, Berlin, Bali, Brisbane, Bogota, or Bamako will attest, travel is more than the mere experience of going somewhere. Travel design must convey the complex messages of: place, pleasure, and international exchange.

Terminals are the Taj Mahals of travel design. The best are those that can convey gateways to an optimistic future. Like a cathedral, the terminal’s inspires a feeling of exaltation before sending you on your way. It is a focus of constant motion, and yet the traveler is encouraged to pause for a quick bite, a gourmet meal or a relaxing cocktail, or just to sit on a comfortable bench and gape at the terminal’s celestial ceiling, upon which the cosmos have been painted.

There will never be a final word on airport design, as airports are in a constant state of flux. New terminals are built in response to new complications, such as increased traffic and heightened security. Old terminals, no matter how beautiful, are continually modified.

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