We know, we know: about 90 percent of the world’s airports—from jam-packed hubs like Frankfurt to dusty outposts like Muscat, Oman—could easily compete for the title of world’s ugliest. After all, while each beautiful airport is beautiful in its own way, the ugly ones blend together in a fog of beige paint and low-hanging acoustic-tile ceilings.
Some airports, however, stand out as particularly egregious. And in the course of narrowing our list—with help from an unscientific survey of design-savvy frequent fliers—a few things became clear. First, the worst offenders are ugly by choice rather than necessity: certain airports, like those in Bali and Sofia, Bulgaria, seem to have gone out of their way to acquire the uncanny placelessness that typifies the modern airport.
Second, pretty much everyone loathes the airport they use the most. For New Yorkers, that’s JFK. “I am sure there are worse airports, but New York should have one of the best,” argues Paola Antonelli, design curator for the Museum of Modern Art. For Angelenos, it’s LAX: “spread out, incoherent, and mean,” complains Silver Lake–based photo rep Maren Levinson. Frederico Duarte, a tastemaker from Lisbon, decries the faux granite and giant Martini & Rossi ads of his hometown airport, while architect Johanna Grawunder, who regularly commutes between San Francisco and Milan, issued a cri de coeur about Milan’s Linate.
This local loathing makes sense. Not only do travelers hate returning time and again to such chronic dysfunctionality and overwhelming dinginess, they’re also embarrassed that this is how others first encounter their beloved cities.
Third, the American airports we love to hate all share roughly the same problem: they were built in the 1950s or ‘60s and have been endlessly expanded and renovated to keep up with ever-increasing passenger loads. As futurist Paul Saffo says of LAX: “The original elegance has been destroyed by one ill-conceived remodel hack job after another. What once was a beautiful airport has become a broken architectural horror.” Ditto JFK, O’Hare, and so on.
It seemed wrong to include airports in active or recent war zones, so we left out Baghdad and cut some slack for the homely little terminal in Pristina, Kosovo. And while it would be easy to lash out at Third World airports, it felt unfair to do so. Besides, for some travelers, the ugliness of underdeveloped airports is a reassuring mark of authenticity.
London-based photographer Richard Baker—who spent months shooting Heathrow’s new Terminal 5—actually prefers airports designed “on a shoestring,” such as Khartoum or Kathmandu. “Western airports,” he insists, “are the ones that get it wrong.”