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Futuristic Airport Terminals

Courtesy of Foster & Partners Beijing Capital International Airport's new Terminal 3, designed by Foster & Partners.

Photo: Courtesy of Foster & Partners

The most beautiful airline terminal in the world is at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. These days, however, most of the airport’s more than 48 million annual passengers arrive and depart oblivious to it: the terminal in question, commissioned by TWA and completed in 1962, hasn’t been in use since 2000, not long before that pioneering airline went bankrupt and was bought by American Airlines. Architect Eero Saarinen’s design is a lyric poem in poured concrete, all curve and swoop, about the wonder of flight. But come September, passengers of low-cost carrier JetBlue Airways will have the option of towing their wheeled suitcases through this architectural dreamscape, checking in at an electronic kiosk, and continuing through Saarinen’s skinny tube-shaped connectors to the brand-new Terminal 5, one of the first built in this country since 9/11.

Given that the over-the-top sensuality of Saarinen’s design would seem to have limited relevance in today’s fraught air-travel environment, it’s an unexpected pleasure to see TWA’s contours reflected in a new generation of airline terminals. Airports are re-embracing the notion of beauty. Beijing’s newly opened Terminal 3, designed by Norman Foster’s Foster & Partners, is a miracle of rapid-fire engineering and army-ant–intensity construction; it’s also the world’s largest single building, with a ceiling that is a dizzying scrim of light and color. Madrid’s Barajas Airport’s 2006 Terminal 4, by Richard Rogers of Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners, is like an extra-long cathedral, an unending vault supported by a colorful procession of buttresses. And Heathrow’s T5, also by RSHP, which had its March opening disrupted by a massive failure of its luggage handling system, is otherwise notable for its undulating glass roof.

By contrast, the JetBlue terminal that rubs shoulders with the historic TWA hub is conspicuously earthbound and deliberately modest. Partly, this is in deference to Saarinen: “The challenge was to lay back, if you will,” says William D. Hooper, a principal architect at Gensler, the firm that designed the 650,000-square-foot building. “We never wanted to compete against Saarinen.” (While the new JetBlue terminal is connected to it, the landmarked Saarinen structure is owned by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.) Beijing’s new Terminal 3 has “a massive wow factor when you step into it,” says Foster & Partners CEO Mouzhan Majidi. JetBlue didn’t go for the wow—how could they?What could they have done that would have been more impressive than what Saarinen accomplished almost 50 years ago without the benefit of the computer modeling systems upon which contemporary architects rely?

According to Gensler’s handout on the terminal, “glamour has been replaced by efficiency.” And that’s what I notice when Hooper gives me a hard-hat tour of the terminal: less attention to image and more to function, and—in an era when air travel can be a trial—a refreshingly thoughtful approach to the basic needs of the passenger. Hooper leads me through the space as if I’m a departing passenger. We enter a long, gently curving hall with a sloping white corrugated-steel roof supported by metal latticework. Windows running the length of the terminal just below the roofline let in sunlight. The architecture, Hooper says, “is intended to be comfortable and generous without being overblown.”

In this prototypical post-9/11 environment, the ticket counters are off to the side—JetBlue travelers tend to arrive with boarding passes already in hand—and security is front and center. The layout accommodates 20 security lanes (although there’s no guarantee that the Transportation Security Administration will staff them all). I’m pleased when he points out that the floor in the security area is made of the spongy rubber that is used to cushion the pavement in playgrounds, a material friendly to shoeless feet.

But when Hooper tells me about the bench, I want to hug him. The bench, all 225 feet of it, is just beyond the security checkpoint. It’s there to aid in what Hooper calls “the revesting process.” In plain English, what this means is that when you pad away from the X-ray machine in your stocking feet, juggling your carry-on bags, your computer, your pocket change, your shoes, and maybe an infant or two, there will be a place to sit and put yourself back together, to revest. It’s a small gesture, but a considerate one. “JetBlue is returning humanity to air travel,” Hooper says.

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