“Airports are ugly,” Douglas Adams once observed. “Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort.”

The UK humorist made a valid point. At the time of committing that thought to paper in the late-1980s, it seemed that functionality had all too often come at the expense of aesthetics. One needed only to visit either of Europe’s two busiest hubs – Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle – to appreciate how an increased volume in air travel and passenger numbers over the preceding decades had forced operators into bolt-ons and expansion programmes with little or no architectural merit. And these were not isolated cases.

Fast forward 20 or so years, however, and the situation has changed. For leading architects, airports are now prestige projects and those charged with commissioning them are looking for something that transcends function and makes a far greater statement.

“For a long time architects overlooked the airport as an aspirational building type,” says Curtis Fentress. “What we saw going up in the 1950s and 1960s were more like warehouses or supermarkets than great transportation terminals. Low ceilings, dingily lit holding areas, fittings not dissimilar to those found in a grocery store – they were not interesting spaces.”

“Airport functionality had all too often come at the expense of aesthetics.”

The US architect, who refers to Heathrow as ‘the Monty Python maze’, was in the vanguard of a generation that looked afresh at what an airport should achieve and signify. Despite going on to design a portfolio of award-winning facilities, including Seoul’s Incheon International – regularly voted the world’s best – he is perhaps still best known for his first airport project, Denver International (DIA), which celebrated its 15th anniversary last year. In his eyes, this was a game changer, revolutionising “the way the world looks at airports and the cities that build them”.

“The 1960s and 1970s were all about function and efficiency, and that led to the designs we saw for terminals such as Atlanta and Dallas Fort Worth,” he explains. “An opportunity to conceive more memorable gateways wasn’t too high on the agenda. The idea of creating an icon was something we really pushed with DIA and the fact that it has become so synonymous with the city and region is testament to how successful such an approach can be.”

Santiago Calatrava is a man who is also well versed in the potency of icon design. The Spaniard has created aspirational architectural landmarks for cities such as Dublin, Buenos Aires, Toronto and Salford. He has been charged with overseeing the next phase in DIA’s evolution: designing a rail station, hotel and two bridges as part of the south terminal’s redevelopment.

Uncertain as to whether one can claim aspirational airport design as a modern phenomenon – he cites Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at JFK and Dulles Airport as ‘moving, beautiful achievements’ – Calatrava feels that a shift in scale over the past 20 years has led to practices and operators ‘thinking bigger’.

“The opportunity is there to make a real statement,” he says. “These facilities often sit in isolation, they are viewed from afar as well as by those passing through their halls. That presents enormous potential to create a genuine landmark. You have all that infrastructure to work with; large canopies, vast areas, bridges, stations. The idea of moving people through these phases, creating and connecting spaces of quality, it is a wonderful chance to make an impression.”

But an all-too-common criticism of contemporary architecture is that the iconic now comes at the expense of locale. Calatrava, for example, has repeatedly been accused of creating ‘one-liners’, erecting interchangeable buildings and structures that contain no reference points to cultural context or local heritage.

“Landmarks are formed through either specifically capturing the places in which they sit or through using the vocabulary of special, unique structures,” he says. “Is there a right way? I don’t know, but when we talk about airports, these places have international links, people passing through from all parts of the globe. An international style should, therefore, be acceptable, as long as that style is genuinely special.”

“For leading architects, airports are now prestige projects.”

Fentress appears less sure. DIA’s 15-acre, Teflon-coated tensile fabric is striking, but the effect is heightened through its evocation of the Rockies, visible in the distance, and subtle homage to the region’s Native American heritage. The architect is committed to providing a sense of place.

“I spend a lot of time getting to know the area in which I’ll be working, its culture, people and history,” he says.

“Context is vital. For Raleigh-Durham International (RDU) in North Carolina there is a legacy of craftsmanship, of people using their hands, working with the region’s hardwoods. But there are also three major universities in the area. It’s a research triangle underpinned by a huge amount of brainpower. Those were all themes I wanted to embody in the final design.”

A sense of place

The strands of artisanship and high-tech pioneering were fused within RDU’s Terminal 2, the final phase of which opened in January, through the use of a lenticular wood truss structure supporting the roof. However, even when the architect enters cultures that are less immediately familiar to his North Carolinian roots, his ambition is to create something instantly recognisable to those for whom he is building, while striving for an elusive ‘uniqueness’.

“In South Korea I spent weeks ingraining myself into the culture, travelling the country, visiting cultural landmarks, studying the lines and forms found in traditional buildings,” he says. “Airports should never be about the architect; they must focus on the people and the place. Yes be memorable, but evoke more than just the memory of the building itself. Call to mind the city, region or country where it stands.”

But the relationship between airport and city can be disjointed. Facilities that lie in the heart of a metropolis are often resented due to the noise and traffic created, while operators become frustrated by the inflexibility and constraints that a neighbouring community may bring. Meanwhile, airports that sit outside the city limits may be less restricted when it comes to growth, but isolation makes it that much harder to become part of the wider area or forge a distinct identity.

The airport experience

The idea of an ‘airport city’ excites Calatrava. He defines his work with DIA, which lies 40km from downtown Denver, as ‘bringing the city closer to the airport’ and the impending rail system goes some way towards making this a reality. However, successful realisation of this goal goes beyond transport links and requires that the facility becomes more than merely a gateway. The idea of creating a destination in its own right is not something Douglas Adams could have envisaged 25 years ago, but it is the aspiration of today’s ambitious architects and operators.

“DIA’s 15-acre, Teflon-coated tensile fabric is striking, but the effect is heightened through its evocation of the Rockies.”

When pressed for examples of airports that have gone some way towards achieving this, Calatrava cites Zurich and Munich. With offices in the former, it is a place he has come to know well and the Spanish architect has been struck by the way in which the facility is used by the city.

“Local people travel there at weekends – it’s only ten minutes from the main station by train – because the shops are open, it has good restaurants, families like to see the airplanes and real efforts have been made to reach out beyond air passengers,” he says.

“Munich is further from the city centre, but when you emerge from that airport it feels as though you are in an actual place.

“There are plazas, gardens, regular events, an upmarket hotel, a feeling of life and an ambience one doesn’t get in many airports. Again, you see people without luggage; locals who have travelled there specifically to take advantage of the amenities.”

The importance of design in making this vision a reality should not be underestimated. While functionality from an operations perspective must never be overlooked, there is now a demand for the airport architect to consider themes such as the humanisation of mega scale, previously restricted to ambitious urban projects, creating spaces and flows more akin to mini cities. This has been driven by a need to maximise revenue on both sides of the gate and by a new generation of operators who recognise the potential benefits that design and architecture can bring to the overall airport experience and the bottom line.

As a qualified architect in her own right, DIA’s aviation director Kim Day is the personification of this trend. Calatrava cites her input, displaying a willingness to share credit that is a rarity in the world of ‘starchitects’, and believes Day’s presence has been invaluable.

“You want to be confronted by someone who appreciates the possibility for such a scheme to deliver real change,” he argues. “With that person in place, those further down also develop a mentality that helps move the process along. This is a team effort and getting people excited about what is being done and excited about the future of the airport makes realising a vision all the easier.”

He also talks of ‘architectural heritage’, the fact that Denver already plays host to buildings designed by leading architects drawn from several eras and styles, and cites Chicago and Bilbao as cities that are similarly receptive to ambitious architectural ideas.

Local involvement

Any expansion project at DIA is also helped by the fact it sits on 53 square miles of real estate, making it by far the largest international airport in the US, and is famed for benefiting from a rather hands-off approach when it comes to intervention from local government.

But Fentress’s undertaking at LAX, the $1.545bn Bradley West project, could not be more different. It comprises a 100,000m² new building incorporating food, beverage and retail outlets, premium lounge space, enlarged security and customs facilities, 15 boarding gates and expanded passenger hold-room areas to accommodate new-generation aircraft such as the Airbus A380. Having not undergone any significant infrastructural upgrades since the 1984 Olympics, LAX has become reluctantly used to the unwelcome moniker of ‘America’s Worst Airport’.

Fentress has sought to transform this state of affairs through involving the local community, asking for input as to what a transformed facility should embody. The result can be seen in the wave-like roof forms that evoke the airport’s Pacific setting and through plans to incorporate elements of media and retail unique to the city. Efforts to generate excitement and rally people behind this new phase have clearly proved successful.

Contemporary requirements

It has taken this long to set LAX back on the road to becoming a world-class facility, which is testament to the legacy of problems that architects and operators face in bringing existing infrastructures up to speed.

“There is now a demand for the airport architect to consider themes such as the humanisation of mega scale.”

“Based on the huge changes in air travel of the last 50 years we now acknowledge a greater need for flexibility in the structures we’re creating,” says Fentress. “Operationally, things have changed greatly. E-ticketing is transforming the way we think about ticket halls and security requirements have become unrecognisable. These are concerns airports are still struggling to address, but you also need to accommodate the next generation of changes that are sure to follow.” Calatrava agrees and cites his experience of designing rail stations as a direct counterpoint. “People spend less time in the station travelling by rail so when frequency increases managing the rise in passengers is less of an issue,” he says.

“Airports are different. The same process requires continuous expansion inside and in front of the facility. In just a decade you can see a terminal virtually require duplication.”

But even the best intentions do not always suffice. Calatrava received criticism from the Spanish airport authorities for his main terminal at Sondica Airport, Bilbao, when it started to hit near-capacity in 2007. He rejects such accusations out of hand and blames the authorities for any issues regarding overuse.

“This was initially perceived as a huge international airport, but it was a political decision to create something smaller,” he says. “From the start the scope was there to extend the facility on both sides and to double, even triple capacity. Those designs were approved by the authorities and can still be realised, but the problem is money – the public funds aren’t there.”

He points to a similar situation at Lyon Airport, where Calatrava designed an iconic rail station in the mid-1990s. That, too, had aspirations to be an international hub for the region, only for authorities to consolidate operations at Charles de Gaulle at its expense.

“In the end, we are all slaves to politics,” the architect says. At least that is a sentiment Douglas Adams would still recognise.