Airports are essential parts of a community and central to the development of urban centres – yet the community they serve rarely gets the chance to weigh in on the planning process.

That, however, is not the case at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, which recently invited the public to vote on the future design of its ageing Terminal 2 as part of its first large-scale expansion in 25 years.

The fourth busiest mega-hub in the world, in 2018 O’Hare handled 83.4 million passengers and about 900,000 flights. As passenger numbers continue to grow and cargo operations steadily increase, the airport has launched the ambitious O’Hare 21 project, which features a planned expansion of Terminal 5 and renovations to Terminals 1 and 3 and most importantly, the revamping of Terminal 2, which will be turned into the airport’s global terminal.

With works set to begin in 2021 and end in 2028, the terminal’s refurbishment is expected to add 25% more gate capacity and increase the total footprint from 5.5 million square feet to 8.9 million square feet, as well as consolidate O’Hare as the most important hub in the Midwest.

Unsurprisingly, Chicago’s leading role in the field of modern architecture and design has taken centre stage in this $8.5bn plan.

As a result, some of the most prestigious architecture firms on the market pitched their ideas of what the new global terminal should look like in the future. Hence the idea to involve the public, which were asked to vote on their preference amongst five selected finalists in mid-January 2019.

The move found huge success among the public, with city officials registering over 1,000 votes in the first few hours.

Providing a revolutionary experience

As the voting period kicked off, Department of Aviation commissioner Jamie Rhee told local TV station WTTW: “We want an experience that from the curb to the gate is revolutionary, uses the most modern technology, has the best amenities in the world and is the most accessible.”

However, having witnessed mixed reactions to the initiative – with some claiming there is more than meets the eye when it comes to airport design – city officials were quick to reassure that the public vote did not crown the definitive winner.

Instead, it helped a secretive selection committee, which likely included key stakeholders like airlines, investors and the Department of Aviation, decide on the best design for O’Hare.

Meanwhile, O’Hare is preparing to start on the other renovation projects falling within its expansion plan, which is scheduled to deliver more than 60,000 jobs for the community and provide a total of $50bn in annual economic impact to Cook County, the area in Illinois where Chicago is located.

Now that the vote is closed, the committee has finally made its choice. Here’s a look at the winning project, the four runners-up and their stunning plans for the new O’Hare Global Terminal.

Winners: Studio ORD

Chicago-based Studio Gang Architects were crowned winners in March this year.

The architects collaborated with numerous firms, including Solomon Cordwell Buenz and Milhouse Engineering and Construction, to present a design that entirely celebrates the city of Chicago, its history and its people.

The team’s vision for the terminal is a Y-shaped area that converges on a central hall, which could be seen as an homage to the Chicago municipal device, symbolising the Chicago River’s three branches.

The decision to include several green spaces and indoor trees is also a tribute to O’Hare’s original name, Orchard Field.

Runners-up

Team 1: Fentress-EXP-Brook-Garza

Fresh from designing a terminal at Denver International Airport, Colorado-based Fentress Architects collaborated with three other firms to present a bright and spacious hub that formally crowns O’Hare as a major international airport.

As part of the design, a curved roof would have topped the terminal, with vertical slats set to connect it to the ground to let natural sunlight filter through the spacious main area.

According to the joint venture, the terminal was designed in an effort to make Chicago O’Hare the “world’s next greatest airport”, and included interactive digital media that would feature in the great hall space.

Team 2: Foster Epstein Moreno JV

A partnership between London-based firm Foster + Partners and local architects Epstein and JGMA pitched a terminal with three vaulted arches that merge into a grand single arch on the airside.

Known in the UK for planning London’s Stansted terminal, Foster + Partners also have a reputation in Chicago for designing another famous building, the iconic riverfront Apple Store in the city centre.

Introducing the design, the firm’s founder Norman Foster said: “I remember coming to Chicago as a graduate and being captivated by the energy, the extraordinary location, the music, the culture and the outdoor sculpture – all of those influences blend together in our proposal.”

Team 3: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP

Another homage to O’Hare’s early days was evident in the project presented by locals Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who have previously designed major buildings in the city such as the Willis Tower and John Hancock Centre.

Nature and green spaces were central to the design, as native prairie grass and glass-enclosed groves of trees appeared in the firm’s proposal.

However, contrary to all the other projects, the structure of this terminal wouldh ave mainly stretched out horizontally, echoing the one of Terminal 2 at Mumbai Airport, another product of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

Team 4: Santiago Calatrava, LLC

Possibly the most ambitious and eye-catching project among the five finalists, the last proposal was presented by Santiago Calatrava, a globally-renowned architect who designed the Transportation Hub of the World Trade Centre in New York.

In O’Hare’s case, a shell-like roof with a glass façade would have topped the terminal, while a large garden area would have been placed near the airport’s service drive.

But the most interesting side of the proposal was Calatrava’s idea to go beyond the terminal building itself and to create a functionally independent campus. This was part of the architect’s holistic vision to create an airport-city, home to hotels, conference centres and restaurants.

Calatrava also proposed to place large green areas inside and at the rear part of the terminal, drawing inspiration from Chicago’s seal, ‘Urbs in Horto’ or ‘City in a Garden’.