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AIRPORT DESIGN Last modified on January 30, 2013

Culture and function: 'Airports have transformed from transportation hubs into shopping malls'

Architect, Matt Honegger, reflects on the continued transformation of airports into multi-faceted facilities designed to meet ever-changing customer demands and business requirements.

Over the past few decades, airports have transformed from transportation hubs to a new kind of entity. 

Part shopping mall, part cultural centre and part Town Square, recent research indicates the airport is on the cusp of emerging as a cornerstone of 21st Century civic life. 

But why is this trend occurring? And what must today’s airports do to take advantage of the new opportunities this presents?

As an architect with Fentress Architects, a firm known for its work in the airport typology, it is my job to not only help design today’s airports, but study the direction in which they’re headed, not just as a building, but as an idea.

Architecture is about more than the grand gestures that define how a building looks from afar. It is also about how programmed space is organised and prioritised within, allowing the conventional airport typology to evolve and adapt to industry trends.

Witness to the evolution
Every airport executive has witnessed first hand the relentless evolution of airport technology. Self-service kiosks and smartphone boarding passes, for example, are replacing traditional rows of check-in desks. 

Elsewhere, security checkpoints that were once cursory are being replaced by ever-more elaborate screening regimens, while demand for more retail has turned once-empty spaces into bustling bazaars. 

Each of these changes has led to a change in the airport’s business model, forcing the repurposing of space and facilities. 

Yet, just as profound as the changes brought about by new technology, are those brought about by the mindset of today’s passengers.

Though the average time spent behind security has increased dramatically since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, so too has the numbers of passengers. In other words, more people than ever are spending more time than ever before in airports.

No longer content with a newsstand and a holding room, passengers are seeking new ways to not only entertain themselves, but to make their time spent waiting for their flight meaningful. 

Airport as third place
While researching a white paper on how this change in passenger mindset is leading to a transformation in the airport itself, I spent several weeks travelling through airports in the United States and Asia. An important tool to understanding this change – and its implications for the future – is the concept of the ‘third place’.

Coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, the third place refers to a social setting distinct from both home (the first place) and work (the second place). Though the adoption of the designation is recent, the concept is not. Humans have always gravitated to settings that provide a reprieve from both home and office, be they the coffee houses of the Ottoman Empire, the pubs of Ireland, or the Starbucks of everywhere else today.

These places play an important role in human culture by providing meaning and a sense of community.

The primary function of the airport, of course, is the efficient processing of passengers. Historically this has been reflected in the spatial priorities of terminals and concourses – the allocation of certain spaces for ticketing, security, and baggage handling, which far outstripped those spaces allocated for anything else.

However, as technology has moved on, so too have those historically entrenched spatial priorities, and today we’re seeing more space devoted to retail, dining, leisure, and cultural amenities. 

This is partly a reflection of how airport business models have changed over the years and, indeed, continue to transform today.

In 2010, for example, non-aeronautical revenue accounted for almost half of all revenue generated by airports in the US. This is a far cry from just a few years ago when aeronautical revenues dominated.

Arguably, the shift to non-aeronautical revenue is merely a response to changing consumer demand. What is clear, however, is that as airport professionals we must come to grips with the idea that today’s airports are more than transportation hubs. In fact, they’re beginning to resemble fully-fledged cities in their own right, taking on roles unheard of in the air transportation industry only a generation ago.

More than a holding room

This trend is perhaps most obvious in the Asia-Pacific region, where it is believed that around 350 new airports will be needed over the next decade just to keep pace with demand.

All four of the airports I visited in the region – Singapore Changi, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Incheon – all had established, or were establishing, a new paradigm in air travel centred on turning the airport into a ‘third place’. 

At Singapore Changi, for example, there are seven themed indoor gardens and an entire level in Terminal 3 is devoted to shopping and dining.

In Kuala Lumpur you can partake in a massage or stroll through a natural rain forest before catching your plane. At Hong Kong, one can catch a showing in a movie theatre or play a round of golf. While at Incheon, one can enjoy cultural performances and even go ice skating.

However, the trend is not confined to Asia, as many of Europe’s international airports boast activities not traditionally associated with airports. At Amsterdam Schiphol, for example, passengers may visit an annex to the Dutch National Museum, play Blackjack in a casino or even get married in the airport’s own wedding chapel. 

Elsewhere, Munich Airport’s Munich Airport Center provides an arena for travellers and locals alike to catch a volleyball tournament or a professional polo match, while you can hold your child’s birthday party in the terminal at Zurich Airport.

The global citizen
For airport executives – and airport architects – the changes taking place in airports around the world represent more than a natural evolution of existing trends, but a categorical shift that turns the airport into a cultural hub. 

That one can go ice skating or host a birthday party in an airport doesn’t suggest we’re spending too much time in airports. Instead, it suggests we’re building our lives around the idea of
global transport. 

For those of us who make a living in the air transportation industry, it’s easy to lose sight with what aviation accomplished. Voyages around the world were once measured in weeks, or even months. Today, we measure such voyages in hours. 

For global citizens, be they business travellers or families with relatives on multiple continents, the concept of home and workplace is fluid, contingent more on available seats than connections to any particular piece of real estate. 

Thus business partners from San Jose and Shenzhen can fly to Changi and close a deal over a round of golf. Likewise, family in both Minneapolis and Mumbai can fly to Schiphol and watch a favourite cousin marry her fiancé at the airport’s wedding chapel.

The airport has become, both literally and figuratively, a ‘third place’ – a neutral crossroads of culture and function. 

Beyond retail and dining
So how do we prepare for the vast programmatic changes already reshaping today’s airports?

First, by being frank with ourselves, and admitting that simply adding more retail or dining options is not enough, and second, by redesigning the airport itself to seize the opportunities available in this vast new frontier. 

All this begins by examining what passengers are looking for beyond a place to buy a magazine, recharge their mobile phone, and wait for a plane.

Historically, airports have been regarded as non-places or a necessary pause between where one is and where one is headed. As industry professionals, it is our job to turn that non-place into a ‘third place’.

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