Are We Missing Major Place-Making Opportunities With Our Airports?

Terminal 2, RDU

Yes, this looks cool, but I think I’ve seen this airport before…(Image Credit Flickr user: Evil Jess

Floating through airports over the summer, I have noticed how remarkably similar they are. I would think  an international building with the ability to showcase the local culture would in fact be that showcase. Instead, I’m seeing  the same generic architecture. I feel that the airport, as the million (and lately billion) dollar showpiece of your town , should be unique in not only architecture, but in the content that it sells and displays.

When I arrived at Raleigh-Durham International Airport on the way to the CNU 19 in Madison, WI,  my first response was a series of oohs and ahhs. The arches, the glass elevators, the pre-security Starbucks and sandwich shop, the big windows, I was amazed. Then I started thinking, somehow this all looks very familiar. The baggage claim with the ticketing floor terrace was Baltimore. Same with the security tables between the restaurants. The arches I’ve seen in Detroit, Indianapolis, Charlotte. Everybody has windows.  Even in Madison, without the arches, there were windows, beige and the feel of the constricted and shed-like RDU Terminal 1. Great, I’m thinking now, we have always had an airport plan that’s bland and adds nothing to the character. Yes, the art is different and cool, but when did big arches come to symbolize air travel?

At this point you can go ahead and ask why I should care? It’s just the airport. You come in and you go out and you are only there as long as it takes to get on a plane. However, we all know you can spend a minimum of two hours preparing to get on a plane, 30 minutes getting into flight, the time of the flight, then about 30-45 minutes to exit. This of course assumes that there is no layover. If that’s the case, you are stuck in a building with processed food, stale air, overpriced wi-fi and horribly uncomfortable chairs. You might be able to pay to access an airline lounge, but it’s not worth the expense.

So what do I think airport authorities should encourage out of their architects? What kind of experience do I want in the airport?

First of all, I like the Tampa model for architecture. Tampa’s main building has a nice mid-century modern, golden age of passenger air travel feel in their main terminal. Once you go upstairs, you are then invited into the 21st century, through people movers that take you to one of five spoked terminals, each of which reflects a different tone and character. There are still windows so you can see the planes, but it doesn’t all look the same. Also we could add chairs at the gate that don’t have the bars, in case people do in fact need to sleep at the airport.

For what’s sold in the airport, the airport needs to reflect Austin’s model, with a ban on chain restaurants. RDU is about half and half. Still, my true home airport of Greensboro only has one restaurant and I assume it’s locally owned, but even it may be controlled by that airport franchising company . Same with the stores. Outside of a few duty-free and magazine shops, having a store like the Motown store in Detroit is excellent for establishing the meaning of a place.

One last amenity that should be offered is a family wing. Similar to the USO lounge for soldiers and families, maybe around Christmas and other major holidays, one of the airline lounges can become a family area, so that families can calm their children down and keep them from being loud  on planes or tired young professionals can catch a few hours of sleep on the way home from visiting parents.

But I digress, what do you think your home airport should have or look like? How can we make our airports better places?

  • Here in Ottawa, Canada

  • Here in Ottawa, Canada the airport authority has done a good job making the airport reflect the local culture. Tenants include local coffee shop and restaurant chains. Also, as the capital city or Canada you find art and symbols that reflect the country like Inuit art that you’d find in the arctic. Amenities include free wifi and comfy chairs. Ottawa’s were voted #1 airport in the world for customer satisfaction for airports with under 5 million passengers under the Airports Council International (ACI) Airport Service Quality program.

    What could they do better?

    I’m not a huge environmentalist, but I’d love our airport to have park-like grounds that you could walk while waiting for your flight. Ottawa has so much greenspace and water it would be nice to have grounds that reflected what you were about to experience in the city or what you had just experienced. Plus, it would make us unique. Most airports are surrounding by concrete.

    • Anonymous

      I love the idea of the park. When I was in Detroit, the air was much cooler than it was in North Carolina at the time and  all I wanted was fresh air. I think they could kick out an area post security and fence it in for passengers to stroll. Wifi could be free and there could be local plants and shade trees. Great to hear your airport rocks!

  • "Are We Missing Major Place-Making Opportunities With Our Airports?" YES! via @blackurbanist @Archability #architecture

  • EmilyP

    I totally second the comment about parks – take the airport lounge and put it outside.  

    I’d add real access to ground transportation: more than just one shuttle bus or long train line connecting the airport to the city. DCA for example – with a long enough layover, one can take Metro into DC or Alexandria to grab lunch, and the Mt Vernon bike trail is right there. Add a few bike racks and maybe a bikeshare station and people can actually ride to and from their flights.  Essentially, the airport should be part of the transportation network, not isolated – it shouldn’t be hard to step off a plane and into the city.

    • Anonymous

      I agree, if I could have gotten out of the Detroit airport reasonably, I could have spent a few hours with my aunt and then flown on to Madison. DC would be another great place to walk around and explore, especially with DCA being so close to the National Mall.

  • Please! RT @blackurbanist: What can we do to make our #airports better places? #placemaking #publicspaces

  • I completely agree with your sentiment here. The beauty of geography is the uniqueness you find across various natural landscapes, cities and the people you are likely to encounter.

    It is only fitting then that the design for places that promote many reasons for travel (i.e. business, education, family gatherings and plain ol’ wanderlust) should be inspirational, creative, unique and artistically reflect the beauty of where you are at that very moment in the world.

    Like Kevin mentioned, I really like the idea of having local cuisine knock out chain restaurants. That would boost local business!

  • Are We Missing Major Place-Making Opportunities With Our Airports via @blackurbanist

  • Are We Missing Major Place-Making Opportunities With Our Airports via @blackurbanist

  • CityBeautiful21

    I agree that RDU recalls other terminals elsewhere: Frankfort, Germany
    is one I seem to recollect walking through the primary ticketing area.

    But the primary answer to your question is “no.”  We are not missing placemaking opportunities in airports.  The airport, due to its “security-state” function in post-9/11 America, and its exclusion of anyone without a ticket, and thus de facto exclusion of the poor unless they are workers, can never be made into a genuine place.

    Obviously, if airports can be made less onerous places to be, then for the traveling public, myself included, I think this is fine.  However, let’s be sure that if precious public dollars are to be spent to make certain places more inviting spaces to be in, that those places are open to all, and not only to people of a minimum level of wealth/income who are willing to be x-rayed.