Frequent flying is a fact of modern life for most of us. In the last few weeks, I flew to Paris for a memorable Pritzker Prize ceremony at Versailles, honoring architect Arata Isozaki. Not long after, I flew to the national AIA conference, where I could have booked the “Versaillesstyle Napoleon suite” at the Paris Las Vegas, complete with a miniature Eiffel Tower out front. Go figure.
On the way there, I stopped at the new TWA Hotel at JFK airport in New York. The hotel’s sleek, small rooms are housed in a pair of plain seven-story glass-fronted structures, set like parentheses on each side of Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center. That sculpturally evocative, once-threatened building (it was landmarked in 1994) has been beautifully restored by Beyer Blinder Belle and repurposed as a lobby and lounge for the hotel. A new Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant is located on the mezzanine where a Parisian café once whetted the appetites of international travelers for the cuisine that awaited them in France.
Saarinen’s deliciously curvy space is the sexiest interior in America—its floors a mosaic of tiny round, white Japanese tiles that swoop up to create seating; the upholstery and accents in classic TWA red. With every move, the architect wanted to express excitement about the future of air travel (and, remember, he and his team did all this without a computer). But aviation was changing so quickly that the terminal was soon obsolete. Between 1955, the year before Saarinen got the commission, and 1962, when it opened, passenger traffic at the airport, then called Idlewild, had more than tripled. Aircraft technology, of course, rapidly changed too. The design had been presented by the time the first commercial jetliner, the Boeing 707, was introduced in 1958. The terminal’s relatively small scale was overwhelmed by the volume of travelers and size of planes, and finally it closed for good in 2001—and just as well, for it’s hard to imagine where they would have put the ugly equipment for a TSA checkpoint after 9/11.
The inadaptability of the TWA Flight Center remains a cautionary example to airport architects today, who face challenges far more complex. As terminals grow ever vaster to accommodate more passengers and more flights—and security is paramount—how can designers deftly anticipate the future? And how can architecture improve what is generally a dismal experience for air travelers? In this issue, record editors, led by Joann Gonchar, FAIA, explore the imperatives behind the next generation of global airports. The forces governing these designs go beyond speed and efficiency to include catering to the passenger: better wayfinding; shortening the distance from check-in to gate; employing biophilia and other strategies to create a more calming atmosphere; adapting to changing modes of transportation to the airport in the era of Lyft and Uber. (Uber is beginning to offer helicopter ride-sharing from Manhattan to JFK, in advance of its launch in the next few years of its planned Uber Elevate, a VTOL—vertical takeoff and landing—aerial taxi system.)
And in the pages ahead, we take a look at three airports that exemplify such forces for the future. Jewel Changi, an audacious glassdomed structure at the Singapore airport, designed by Moshe Safdie, with landscape by PWP, is an enormous leisure amenity with a forest, garden, waterfall, and retail that is attracting not only passengers in transit but locals as well (page 74). South of Beijing, the new Daxing Airport by Zaha Hadid Architects, slated to open this fall, is intended to take pressure off Beijing’s Capital Airport, with four runways instead of three, and an intramodal transit system to get passengers in and out more efficiently. Its star-shaped form creates a maximum number of gates, while shortening the distance its anticipated 72 million annual travelers (by 2025) would have to trek to their flights. At the other end of the scale, the Elmira Corning Regional Airport in upstate New York, by architects Fennick McCredie, incorporates design elements that are almost domestic—comfy couches and chairs, and a calming view out to a grove of trees from a curved route that leads passengers to security. (With only four gates, it is part of a trend in smaller airports to accommodate larger planes, which mean greater savings per seat for the airlines.)
Was air travel ever the dream adventure that the ad men and some visionaries, including Saarinen, once imagined? Probably not. The airport of the future may not bring back the romance, but maybe can restore half the fun of getting there.