Envision a majestic space, two miles long, shaped like a dragon. Above, a flurry of reds and yellows color a dizzying mesh ceiling, backlit by the sun, and below, 50 million people pass each year. This building, one of the world's largest, is no palace or museum—it's Terminal 3 at Beijing International Airport.
Airports, of course, aren't always so glorious. Most often, they're merely utilitarian entry and exit points for travelers who may be too harried to notice the design. But a growing number of cities have spent lavishly, hiring starchitects to elevate the basic terminal-and-tower structure into a city's captivating gateway.
This is especially true in Asia. Eager to demonstrate their affluence and technological mastery, countries like China and South Korea have led the world in the construction of gargantuan new facilities that are unparalleled in their architectural style and engineering. "Airports are a national symbol, therefore no expense is spared to make sure mine is better than yours," says architect Ron Steinert, an airport expert with the international architecture firm Gensler.
Unfortunately, it might be hard to envision an airport like Beijing's in the U.S., where flying is generally no more inspiring than taking a bus (and sometimes less so). Sure, back in the 1960s, when Eero Saarinen's landmark TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy was completed, air travel was a glamorous, exciting experience for a relatively small number of people. (In 1960, JFK handled 8.8 million passengers a year. These days it's upward of 48 million.) But today, airports like Cleveland-Hopkins International and La Guardia are so dreary and difficult to navigate, their terminals only add to what is already a dreaded travel experience.
Still, some U.S. airports have moments of beauty, such as the light tunnel at Chicago O'Hare's United Airlines terminal, a breakthrough when it was completed in 1988, or artist Michele Oka Doner's sea life–embedded floor at Miami's Concourse A, which earned a cameo in the George Clooney movie Up in the Air.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world is building entire new terminals that infuse air travel with some of its old magic. T4 at Madrid's Barajas airport is, according to the New Yorker's architecture critic Paul Goldberger, "more breathtakingly beautiful than any airport I have ever seen." And Santiago Calatrava's Sondika airport in Bilbao is "cathedral-like, a great space to be in," according to Design Within Reach's globetrotting founder Rob Forbes.
And the world's most beautiful airports aren't just for show—they also bring heightened functionality. "There's a need for legibility to the actual design and a linear flow," says engineer Regine Weston, an airport expert for Arup who studies the pragmatic side of airport beauty. "So when you're in a building you have a very good sense of what happens next and where you go."
In other words, these airports will not only dazzle you—their design may also help you get to your gate on time.