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AIRPORT DESIGN Last modified on August 11, 2016

The special ones

The iconic former TWA Flight Center at New York-JFK. The iconic former TWA Flight Center at New York-JFK.

Some of the world’s leading airport architects talk about their favourite terminals from a design aspect and explain why they believe that they deserve to be labelled ‘iconic’.

We all have our favourites, and whether for personal reasons, pride at your airport’s achievements or simply the ‘wow factor’ of the unique architecture, there is no doubt that we are truly spoilt for choice when it comes to impressive airport terminals.

In many cases the favourite terminals of travellers are often cited as being ‘beautiful’ or even ‘serene’ and there is no getting away from the fact that the peaked roof design of Denver International Airport or the honeycomb design of Shenzhen Bao’an’s new Terminal 3 are beautiful.

But what about ‘iconic terminals’? The ones that perhaps set new design trends when they were built or arguably still have the wow factor and look good today despite the passing decades?

Well, who better to ask than some of the world’s top airport architectural firms and, in some cases, the designers that actually worked on some of the world’s most high-profile airport terminals.

Taking up the challenge for this article are Stanis Smith (Stantec); Jonathan Massey (Corgan); Grant Brooker (Foster + Partners); Darryn Holder, (HOK); John Pehling (RS&H); and Ben Lao (BenL Design International Inc).

The original TWA Flight Center 

Location: New York, USA

Designed by: Eero Saarinen

Opened: 1962

The choice of: Stanis Smith and Ben Lao

Why? “The dictionary describes iconic (ī-ˈkä-nik) as “widely recognised, well-established, acknowledged for distinctive excellence and this terminal certainly is that,” says Stanis Smith, Stantec’s senior vice president.

“Some airports achieve iconic status through their exterior form. The TWA Terminal at JFK, completed in 1962, is arguably the most famous and well-recognised in this category,” adds Smith.

“Its sleek, aerodynamic form evokes flight in a manner that has often been copied but seldom equalled. That being said, it is more of a sculptural statement than a practical one, and has always been poorly-suited to its function as a terminal. It is currently in the process of being converted into a hotel.”

Ben Lao says: “Eero Saarinen’s original sculptural design for TWA’s Flight Center at Idlewilde Airport (now JFK) completed and dedicated on May 28, 1962, is a testament to the architect’s ingenuity as an innovator, a futurist, a modernist, a visionary and a creative interpreter of the client’s desire to create a symbolic building to celebrate the advent of the jet age. 

“Commissioned in 1955, three years before the introduction of the first jet propelled aircraft – the B707 – into commercial service, Saarinen conceived of a powerful curvilinear form shaped out of thin concrete shells and designed the entire building inside and out, from fixtures to furniture, in a harmonious fashion at a time when other architects were designing airport terminals around the world along more rigid lines based on utilitarian building principles. 

He was clearly ahead of his time with this architectural masterpiece. The prominence of the wing-shaped soaring structure, which symbolises a bird in flight, captured the imagination of the public from its inception. Consistent with the expressive exterior is the dramatic openness of the interior with floor to ceiling panoramic sloping windows, sunken seating area, curving staircases and walkways detailed out by the architect himself.  

Hong Kong International Airport’s Terminal 1

Location: Hong Kong 

Designed by: Foster + Partners

Opened: 1998

Chosen by: Grant Brooker, senior executive partner, Foster + Partners

Why? Grant Brooker, Foster + Partner’s head of studio, says: “Chek Lap Kok airport in Hong Kong is all about the journey and the absolute joy of travel – the brief for the project focused on the importance of passenger experience at the airport, and the architecture emerged from that. While designing the building, we were trying to rediscover the excitement at the grand civic spaces that defined the great railway buildings of the preceding century – such as the Grand Central Terminal in New York, with its monumental concourse and iconic façade that has become synonymous with the city itself. 

“In Hong Kong, the scale and rhythm of the vaults, the way the interior space shifts and flows all come together to form a unified, intuitive terminal building that became a new gateway to the city. Natural light gives life and movement inside the terminal spaces with generous, direct views of the aircraft and the runways. The entire project was a celebration of the excitement of travel, and the joy of arrival, combined with the spirit and romance of flight.” 

International Terminal at Vancouver International Airport

Location: Vancouver, Canada

Designed by: Architectura (now Stantec Architecture) with HNTB Corporation

Opened: 1996

Chosen by: Stanis Smith, Stantec

Why? He says: “Other airports achieve iconic status through their interior experience. The International Terminal at Vancouver, completed in 1996, is widely recognised and admired for the way in which it features the art of the Pacific Northwest and evokes the natural beauty of the British Columbian landscape. 

“Architecture, interior design, art and exhibits all combine to create a serene and memorable passenger experience that has propelled the terminal to the top ranks of international airports in worldwide surveys.” 

Washington Dulles Terminal Building

Location: Washington DC, USA

Designed by: Eero Saarinen

Opened: 1962

The choice of: Jonathan Massey (Corgan) and Darryn Holder (HOK)

Why? Corgan’s aviation sector leader, Jonathan Massey, says: “Eero Saarinen’s 1958 design for Washington Dulles International Airport is a wonderful example of an iconic terminal. Its simple form, evocative of flight, is the benchmark for aviation architecture. The Saarinen terminal is a classic example of how enveloping complex functions within a strong urban-scale form can result a timeless design.  

“The planning restraints put in place limiting surrounding structures has maintained the views of the terminal and its intended prominence on the landscape, contributing greatly to its continued position as an icon. Other features such as the mobile lounges also give the terminal a distinct sense of place and identity.”

HOK’s regional aviation and transportation leader, Darryn Holder, says: “I was captured by the architectural design of this building long before deciding to pursue a career as an architect. Growing up in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, Dulles was our local airport. I had an early appreciation for its dynamic structural forms that stood elegantly as functional sculptures. 

“The soaring free span at Dulles furthered the pioneering use of concrete on the airport buildings at Lambert-St Louis International Airport, designed by Gyo Obata and the firm of Hellmuth, Yamasaki and Leinweber, the predecessor firm of HOK. Dulles became the benchmark for single-roof terminal buildings where flexibility of accommodation and passenger flows were allowed to play out within the generous free volume. 

“Along the horizontal facades, the modulation of concaved curtain wall bays ripple as if they are liquid glass. Although repetitive, each has the appearance of discrete and complete units. At Dulles, the big box architecture would be incomplete without the joint composition of the control tower, an equally elegant structure exerting authority over the terminal complex. The mobile lounges are another fascination, serving as a journey in themselves before connecting to a greater
journey beyond.” 

Hamad International Airport

Location: Doha, Qatar

Designed by: HOK

Opened: 2014

Chosen by: Darryn Holder, HOK

Why? “Lasting impressions are formed both by perception of the built environment and personal experiences. In my travels, I have encountered no greater benchmark for an aviation hub terminal than Doha’s Hamad International Airport. 

“From day one, the goal of the terminal’s design was to redefine the passenger experience with a hospitality mindset for a superior level of service and unrivalled amenities. Whether it is the seamless landside intermodal interchange or the choreography of the processes for connecting the transferring passengers, the vision was to transcend functionality to shape memorable experiences. 

“Central to this goal was the notion of how to impart the reality of being in Doha, experiencing its people and culture, and sampling its pride of place without leaving the terminal’s airside boundary. 

“With some 80% of its traffic transferring, the gateway is the destination. The terminal embodies a snapshot of Qatar.” 

Tampa International Airport 

Location: Tampa, Florida

Designed by: RS&H

Opened: 1971

Chosen by: John Pehling, RS&H

Why? Tampa International Airport’s Landside/Airside terminal design was the first of its type in the world. A pioneering concept, it has been lauded for its architecture and Landside/Airside design of a central terminal connected by people movers to satellite gates,” says RS&H’s vice president, John Pehling.

“TIA is full of many design elements that made the airport revolutionary at its time. These included design driving criteria to limit the walking distances between the automobile and planes to 700 feet; a people mover system, which was the first of its kind in the world, as was the automated baggage system. It was also the first airport to use a colour-coded wayfinding signage system.

“TIA continues to be voted best airport in America and among the top three in the world on numerous occasions and consistently receives high customer satisfaction ratings year-over-year. 

“Currently, a billion-dollar expansion is underway and at the core is the airport’s continued desire to build on the legacy of outstanding customer experiences by expanding and modernising its space to meet the future of modern air travel. Tampa International Airport was, and still is, an iconic design clearly ahead of its time, and it all started with a napkin sketch.” 

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport’s Terminal D 

Opened: 2005

Designed by: Corgan

Chosen by: Jonathan Massey, Corgan

Why? “This is the flagship international facility for the airport,” says Corgan’s aviation sector leader, Jonathan Massey. “DFW is primarily a hub with 60% of its passengers connecting to another flight, so what they experience of Texas is through the terminal itself. Similar to Dulles, this design uses a simple and elegant roof form to respond to the urban scale, while creating tailored, human-scale experiences inside.

The interior design, concessions programme and other amenities are good examples of elements of air travel that have evolved greatly since the opening of Dulles.”

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