New Airports Are Promising a Better Future Once Travel Bounces Back

New airport terminals opening around the world are bringing high-concept art and architecture to once-dreary spaces.

Hanging steel installation by artist Sarah She at LaGuardia airport
Shorter than the Day, a new installation by Sarah Sze, at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Photo: Nicholas Knight/Courtesy of the artist. Artwork: © Sarah Sze, Shorter than the Day, 2020. Commissioned by LaGuardia Gateway Partners in partnership with Public Art Fund for LaGuardia Airport’s Terminal B

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When 60 eager travelers boarded flights at Taipei Songshan Airport on July 2, they were headed, well, nowhere. To showcase major renovations — more than 100,000 square feet of new shopping, dining, and lounge areas — completed during spring’s travel lockdown, the airport offered half-day tours in the form of mock takeoff experiences. A whopping 7,000 locals entered a lottery to get one of the coveted spots.

It’s a sign of the enthusiasm fliers have for airports that are more than just places to pass through. Architects and urban planners are taking notice, says Max Hirsh, an airport expert and professor at the University of Hong Kong. “It’s important to make a positive first impression on visitors and create positive memories when they leave,” Hirsh notes, citing Singapore’s Jewel Changi Airport, which opened in April 2019, as the leading example. “Airports become urban centers in themselves, with a range of leisure, shopping, and entertainment facilities.”

Exterior of the Berlin Brandenburg Airport
Berlin Brandenburg Airport, in the works since 2006, opens this fall. Günter Wicker/Courtesy of Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg GmbH

That’s certainly true at Berlin Brandenburg Airport, a $8.6 billion project that broke ground in 2006. Its Terminal 1 is slated to open on October 31, and by year’s end Brandenburg will take over from the cramped, much-maligned Berlin Tegel, which is due to close on November 8. Passengers at the new airport will walk past landscaping reminiscent of the city’s Unter den Linden, the famed boulevard linking the Brandenburg Gate and Museum Island, and enter between colonnades similar to those at the Altes Museum. They will then step into the massive departures hall, under The Magic Carpet, a site-specific sculptural work by California artist Pae White.

Art is also key at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport, where work continues on an $8 billion overhaul. The latest addition is a new Terminal B, served by Air Canada, American, Southwest, and United. Thanks to a partnership with the Public Art Fund, passengers can check out mirrored balloons by Danish sculptor Jeppe Hein, a kaleidoscopic glass collage by German artist Sabine Hornig, mosaics by Los Angeles–based Laura Owens, and a photographic installation by New York City’s Sarah Sze.

Artist Sabine Hornig used more than 1,100 photographs in La Guardia Vistas
Artist Sabine Hornig used more than 1,100 photographs in LaGuardia Vistas. Nicholas Knight/Courtesy of the artist. Artwork: © Sabine Hornig, La Guardia Vistas, 2020. Commissioned by LaGuardia Gateway Partners in partnership with Public Art Fund for LaGuardia Airport’s Terminal B

At Bermuda’s L. F. Wade International, which aims to open a new terminal by the end of the year, the focus is on the outdoors: fliers will be able to stash their bags and walk an adjacent nature trail or enjoy a pre-security patio with views of the ocean and local flora, including frangipani, hibiscus, and palms. Inside, the sloping roof will call to mind traditional Bermudan architecture.

San Francisco International Airport likewise embraces its environment, with the 1,460-square-foot SkyTerrace, which opened in February. This space offers panoramic views of all four runways as well as the bay. Located outside security in Terminal 2, the free observation deck has quickly become a destination for locals.

And the long-awaited new terminal at Salt Lake City International Airport — in progress in one form or another since the 90s — is now open. The linear design of the New SLC, as it’s known, gives passengers a sweeping view of Utah’s Oquirrh and Wasatch mountains, as well as monumental indoor sculptures by Californian Gordon Huether. The largest is The Canyon, which was forged from aluminum frames and 2½ acres of fabric that span more than the length of a football field. Better check in early.

A version of this story first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Cutting-edge Design, About to Take Off.

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