Matt Dubbe, AIA, NCARB, is an architect in our Minneapolis office who specializes in airport terminal design. On occasion, Matt will drop-in here and share his thoughts on industry developments.
I grew up in the DC area when going to visit National Airport to watch the planes was considered pure family pleasure. On the occasions when I flew out of Dulles, I would marvel at Saarinen’s genius for evoking flight in building form. The moon-like buggies that took us to the planes were straight from the Apollo program. When Dulles became a postage stamp in 1982, its iconic status reached a broader audience.
This memory came to mind while reading author Patrick Smith’s great article on the changing face of airport terminals. So what is it about today’s terminals? Are they lacking the breathing room that the ESTO black and white photography conveyed in iconic terminals like LaGuardia? Many airports were once in open lands but now have surrounding development knocking on their door. The era of the Aerotropolis is upon us with its intermodal connectivity. And from a regional planning and environmental perspective, that’s a good thing.
As for the architecture itself, like many sectors in the professional service world, we have become specialists. While the star architect will still get involved, they have to align themselves with a team intimately familiar with the complexities of airport/terminal design. The stakeholders with voting rights now includes the FAA, TSA, city officials, financial analysts, corporate tenants, the surrounding community, planners, politicians and artists. Whew. And the funding picture is unclear because our friends in Washington seem bent on intractable positions.
All of the above is not a self-indulgent excuse for poor design but a suggestion that the best terminal designs for the future will be one of campus-style regional contextualism. Terminals should speak to where the traveler finds him/herself. Not in a pastiche theming manner that comes close to offending each passenger but in way that provides an innate understanding of why Newark is different than San Diego.
With airline capacity continuing to drop and the security screening process more and more stressful (being kind here), the traveling public deserves terminals that are intermodal, comfortable, bright, intuitively easy to navigate, and offer relevant amenities. These airports exist today albeit they represent the exception rather than the norm. Successful terminal design has become more about place-making because we have to spend that much more time in them. Many international airports understand that the surest way to alienate the customer is to hold them captive for hours on end and make that time painful.
One of my most indelible traveling memories is dining at the Theme Building in LAX. That building speaks to the essence of LA, but given present-day security rules, I suspect even those with a long layover will not venture out to visit it. The task before us is to create those places within a denser, almost urban setting. Designing them for a loose fit and a long life will provide some protection against the future wrecking ball.