World's Ugliest Airports
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.”
John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York City
When JFK was young—back when it was still called Idlewild—it was beautiful, a stunning assemblage of the best modern architecture of its time. The International Arrivals Building featured a graceful arched hall decorated with an Alexander Calder mobile, and Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal was a bit of heaven. That was 50 years ago. Today JFK is resolutely hellish; arriving passengers are often greeted with endless blank corridors and stairways. “More than dysfunctional, it’s completely bananas,” says Museum of Modern Art design curator Paola Antonelli. Especially loathed are the Delta terminals, which industrial designer David Gresham calls “filthy, dilapidated, and unclear in any sense of signage or direction.”
The Upside: The new JetBlue terminal is perfectly functional. And Terminal 1—built in the 1990s and used by a number of international carriers—is not so bad.
Charles de Gaulle, Paris
The long, arched, column-free concrete expanse of De Gaulle’s terminal 2E (designed, like the rest of the airport, by architect Paul Andreu) was once hailed as a graceful addition—until a section of it collapsed in 2004 and killed four people. Even apart from that disaster, travelers have come to view CDG the way Monsieur Hulot might: as a symbol of a fiendishly technocratic world where nothing works and nobody cares. “I’ve suffered more abuse and bad signage at De Gaulle than at any other airport,” notes globe-trotting science-fiction writer and design critic Bruce Sterling. Somehow, all the meanness once associated with modern architecture has gotten stuck inside De Gaulle, like the victim of some cruel 40-year flight delay. British design guru John Thackara, who lives in the south of France, believes the airport “has rendered everyone who works there sociopathic. Its staff are literally unable to empathize with the appalling experiences they inflict on passengers.”
The Upside: Rabbits seem to enjoy the airport’s grassy environs.
Sheremetyevo International Airport, Moscow
Sheremetyevo’s Terminal 2 was completed in time for the 1980 Summer Olympics, which inspired more bad architecture than any other event in history. Moscow-born, New York–based architect and designer Constantin Boym observes, “Sheremetyevo was built in the ‘70s in the ‘heroic’ international style, and on a hexagonal grid. It’s a nightmare to navigate because all the walls and passages are at 60-degree angles to one another. It was renovated a couple of years ago, when a dusty ceiling grid was replaced with a smoother one, but this cosmetic repair only underscored the ugliness of the place.”
The Upside: The new terminal D opened in November—though Aeroflot has reportedly postponed transferring its flights there because of “an apparent lack of preparation and personnel.”
Heathrow Airport, London
Heathrow’s greatest virtue is that it makes New Yorkers feel better about JFK. What does Heathrow actually look like? Hard to say. Terry Riley, an architect and former director of the Miami Art Museum, compares it to “four shopping malls that have been smashed together.” The worst offender is Terminal 3, built in 1961 and distinguished by a bizarre system in which passengers are corralled into a low-ceilinged central seating area and not permitted to pass through security to their gates until departure time. Azmi Merican, a Malaysian design merchant, says of Terminal 3, “This is a terminal for a country that had lost an empire and didn’t know its role in the world, or what style of architecture would reflect this.”
The Upside: Terminal 5—nearly 20 years in the making and opened in 2008—is an improvement. And the baggage system works just fine now.
Washington Dulles International Airport, Dulles, VA
Dulles looks great from a distance. The original terminal, designed by Eero Saarinen and completed in 1962, is a majestic swoop of a building. The trouble is, many travelers never see that view. For the passengers who change planes there (it’s United’s East Coast hub), Dulles “looks and feels like all bad U.S. airports rolled into one: low ceilings, depressing lighting, dark walls,” says Berlin-based typographic designer Erik Spiekermann. The airport was expanded with midfield concourses from the 1960s to the 1980s and famously transports passengers to these outlying buildings, and to the aircraft, via “Plane Mates” and Chrysler-designed “Mobile Lounges”—which Spiekermann terms “trucks on stilts” recalling “a cheap imitation of Blade Runner.”
The Upside: A new train system, opened in January, should replace most of the Mobile Lounges.
Narita International Airport, Tokyo
Part of the problem with Narita is that one expects so much more from Tokyo. Located 45 miles—yes, 45 miles—outside the city, it’s a product of 1960s planning and 1970s style: coldly technocratic, soullessly efficient. Narita’s construction was delayed by a land-rights controversy that culminated in deadly riots; at one point local farmers even erected a 200-foot-tall steel tower to block one of the runways. The airport actually sat unused long after it was completed, and remained under heavily armed guard for years, well before post-9/11 security kicked in. Somehow, all this ill will is embedded in the complex itself—as if making the terminals as boring and neutral as possible were a deliberate ploy to ward off further trouble.
The Upside: Small, clean day hotels where weary passengers can shower and nap between flights.
Linate Airport, Milan
From the outside, Linate—the international airport five miles from Milan (as opposed to Malpensa, which is 25 miles out)—resembles a billboard plastered with advertising. Inside, it appears hyperfunctional, in the way that some Europeans (Scandinavians, for example) do quite well. But here the dominant aesthetic is Subway Station. According to Johanna Grawunder, an architect and lighting designer who divides her time between San Francisco and Milan, “the ceilings are low and very dark, the floor is also very dark, and the desks are a sickly yellow plastic.” Furthermore, upon emerging from security, passengers are “spit out directly into a Wolford stockings shop,” Grawunder says. “It’s unbelievable—you have to go through the duty-free shops to reach your gate!”
The Upside: Linate is just 18 minutes from central Milan, while Malpensa is an hour and a half away.
Lynden Pindling International Airport, Nassau, Bahamas
The Caribbean is full of singularly uninspired airports, mostly rudimentary concrete block buildings. By contrast, Nassau’s looks like someone once made a halfhearted effort to get it right. Maybe the nasty blue carpet was nicer when it was new. The same can’t be said for the acoustic-tile ceiling in the concourse or the exposed space-frame structure of the main building. Paltry attempts at atmosphere tend to go horribly wrong, like the occasional cotton-candy-pink wall or the disappointing Café in the Clouds (with cloud-shaped sign!), the one place in the terminal that sells something resembling solid food. One passenger posted a photo on Flickr showing the airport’s routinely jammed waiting room and captioned it: “Loud. Crowded. Hot. Small. Bleh.” Precisely.
The Upside: In July 2009, a groundbreaking ceremony was held for a $400 million expansion project, beginning with a new terminal for passengers to and from the United States.
Ngurah Rai International Airport, Denpasar, Bali
For an airport whose motto is “Gateway to Paradise,” Ngurah Rai is confoundingly grim. Indonesia’s third-busiest airport, near Bali’s capital city, occupies a long, low building with a ceramic-tile roof. Though it doesn’t look so terrible from the outside, inside is a dingy concourse that could really be anywhere, assuming anywhere is Cleveland. “Low ceilings, very low lighting, chairs randomly here and there, and lots of gray,” recalls design writer Eva Hagberg, author of Dark Nostalgia. “All I can remember is the gray. Even the business-class lounge is gray.” And you know an airport’s got problems when its most eye-catching feature is a McDonald’s.
The Upside: Development plans are under way for a new airport inspired by Badung regency style.
Sofia International Airport, Sofia, Bulgaria
Sofia’s airport is a combination of a much-renovated and expanded 1937-era Terminal 1 and a new Terminal 2, which opened in 2006. The old terminal is, as you’d expect, an unpleasant amalgam of styles and additions. The new one should have been an improvement—with many of the characteristics of today’s best airports, like lots of glass and high ceilings—yet it wound up looking like one of those impressively shiny but irredeemably wrongheaded post-Communist showplaces. Perhaps it’s the conical columns that recall a row of Apollo space capsules; or the strange main entrance, more suited to a second-string corporate headquarters than an airport. You get the sense that the builders had the right kit of parts but failed to read the assembly instructions.
The Upside: A design competition was held for the airport’s sleek new control tower; construction begins this year.
Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Atlanta
What does the Atlanta airport look like on the outside? Does it even have an outside? Many passengers at the world’s busiest airport are simply there to change from one Delta flight to the next, so all they ever see is the underground transportation mall or the automated people mover. “The King of the Uglies,” proclaims Greg Lindsay, author of the forthcoming Aerotropolis, who objects in particular to the airport’s rectangular concourses. The massive central atrium—which houses a food court and a large dinosaur skeleton—is done in an architectural style one might call Mid-‘80s American Shopping Mall. And the color scheme leaves much to be desired: “Planet beige!” cries industrial designer David Gresham.
The Upside: Somewhere in concourse B there’s a Nestlé’s Cookie Cart.
El Paso International Airport, El Paso, TX
You are unlikely to mistake El Paso International for any other airport on the planet. Arguably that’s a good thing. The terminal is an apparent attempt to blend regional style—southwestern adobe, more or less—with...something harder to identify. (That domelike copper roof belongs where, exactly: on an old train station? a Greek Orthodox church? in Paris?) Inside, fast-food outlets and ticket counters are dressed up in southwestern drag. But the pièce de résistance lies at the airport entrance. Dedicated in 2007 and purportedly the world’s largest bronze equestrian statue (36 feet tall), it depicts Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate, who reputedly gave El Paso its name, on a rearing horse. However, de Oñate’s special talent was massacring Indians, notably some 800 residents of the Acoma Mesa, and is, as a result, politically troublesome, so the statue is now simply called “The Equestrian.”
The Upside: It’s unique.