World's Most Beautiful Airports
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.
Terminal 3, Beijing International Airport
Opened in time for the 2008 Olympics, the vast Terminal 3 (two miles long and one of the largest buildings in the world) is supposed to represent a dragon. Architects Foster + Partners color-coded the ceiling—a dizzyingly complex mesh that allows sunlight to filter in—with red zones and yellow zones. Not only does the traditionally Chinese color scheme heighten the building's drama, it also helps passengers navigate the building.
Beauty Mark: Arriving passengers disembark at the airport's highest level: "You're walking through a massive, massive space which is the gateway to China," says Foster + Partners CEO Mouzhan Majidi.
Terminal 4, Barajas Airport, Madrid
Designed by Richard Rogers Partnership, Terminal 4 opened in 2006. Its colorful pylons supporting an undulating bamboo-lined roof create a series of daylight-filled canyons in which both arriving and departing passengers pass through one spectacular space, albeit on different levels. The terminal, designed to handle 35 million passengers a year, is Madrid's bid to become Europe's dominant air-hub.
Beauty Mark: T4 is easy to understand because it's linear. "Rogers puts you inside a rainbow that stretches for half a mile," says architecture critic Paul Goldberger.
TWA Terminal, John F. Kennedy Airport, New York City
Granted, you haven't been able to fly out of Eero Saarinen's 1962 landmark terminal in nearly a decade. But its poured-concrete swoops and curves, a lyric poem to the romance of flight, still set the standard for today's leading architects who want to return to—as Saarinen said—architecture that would "express the excitement of air travel."
Beauty Mark: Eventually you'll be able to walk through the old TWA terminal and its 125-foot-long tubular passageways to check into your flight in the adjacent JetBlue terminal.
Carrasco International Airport, Montevideo, Uruguay
The new terminal, opened in 2009 and designed by Uruguayan-born architect Rafael Viñoly, is a gorgeous throwback to JFK circa 1960. In spirit, it's like Saarinen's TWA Terminal, but in style, it's more similar to the JFK's international arrivals hall designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. A 1,000-foot-long, low arch, it is as simple as a child's drawing of an airport, one unbroken, graceful curve. Inside, the departures hall is a great, sunlit room, like an old train station, and a top floor terrace commands sweeping views of the runways.
Beauty Mark: Viñoly notes that in Uruguay "friends and family still come to greet you at the airport or see you off." The terraces and lounges are designed to be "dramatic and welcoming" for both ticketed passengers and their guests.
Sondika Airport, Bilbao, Spain
This Santiago Calatrava–designed airport, built in 2000, is nicknamed La Paloma, or the Dove, for its birdlike silhouette. Inside, the terminal is nakedly sculptural, an unadorned study in sunlight and the rhythmic patterns created by its concrete ribs. "It struck me like a contemporary Gaudí kind of place," says Design Within Reach founder Rob Forbes, "fully in keeping with the Spanish/Basque/Catalan tradition of ‘modern baroque.'"
Beauty Mark: Even the parking garage, partially buried in a green hillside, is well thought out and beautiful.
Denver International Airport
Denver's airport, routinely voted the best airport in North America by business travelers, is beloved for its billowing roofline. The product of a hasty sketch by Denver-based architect Curtis Fentress, who had three short weeks to cook up a design concept, the airport features a Teflon-coated tensile fabric roof—the world's largest when the airport opened in 1995—and looks like a village of giant white tepees. The airport is at its most beautiful when you approach by air from the east and see the glowing man-made peaks silhouetted against the Rockies.
Beauty Mark: The quirky music that marks the arrival of the airport's people mover was supplied by Denver artist Jim Green, who is also responsible for the Laughing Escalators at the Denver Convention Center.
Incheon International Airport, South Korea
Since its opening in 2001, Incheon, designed by Denver's Fentress Architects, has been a frequent presence at the number one spot on lists of the world's best airports. Not only is it efficient and welcoming, it is intended to be a showcase of Korean culture. The bow of the roofline emulates a traditional Korean temple, the arrival hallways are lined with 5,000 years of Korean artifacts, and the airport's wildly biomorphic train terminal is one of the few places on earth that still looks genuinely futuristic.
Beauty Mark: Visit the Pine Tree Garden in Millennium Hall and the Wildflower Garden in the basement of the Transportation Center.
Marrakech Menara Airport, Morocco
This dramatic new airport terminal is an example of how Modernism and traditional Islamic architecture have begun to cross-pollinate. Designed by a team of architects led by Casablanca-based E2A Architecture and completed in 2008, the structure is formed of massive concrete rhombuses. This muscular approach is softened by the exquisite arabesque patterns on the building's glass skin, which cast complex, ever-changing shadows on the terminal's floors.
Beauty Mark: There are 72 photovoltaic pyramids generating power on the roof.
Chek Lap Kok Airport, Hong Kong
Compared with the spectacular Beijing airport, this 1998 Foster + Partners project is relatively humble. Its beauty can be attributed to its extraordinary functionality. Even the sleepiest passenger off the 17-hour flight from New York can maneuver through this airport with eyes half open. Billowy roof vaults work like subliminal arrows, constantly nudging passengers in the right direction. Between the Jetway and the express train to Hong Kong, there are no stairs or escalators.
Beauty Mark: The train to Hong Kong Central is right in the main terminal building and impossible to miss. Departing Hong Kong, passengers can simply drop their bags at the train station downtown, and not only will they make it to the airport, they’ll also be checked onto the departing flight.
Tempelhof International Airport, Berlin
As difficult as it is to use the word beautiful to describe anything designed by Nazi architect Albert Speer, this imposing 1936 terminal, an unbroken curve more than a third of a mile in length, determined the shape of airports for generations to come. Made famous by the Berlin Airlift of 1948–1949, the airport was shut down in 2008; the airfield will be used as an immense city park while the terminal will be preserved for cultural functions.
Beauty Mark: In about seven years, this 568-acre green space will eclipse the famous Tiergarten as Berlin's premier park.
Malvinas Argentinas Airport, Ushuaia, Argentina
Located in Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America, this is the world's southernmost international airport. Its beauty is largely a function of its natural setting—flights here come in low over the majestic Andes Mountains—and its role as a gateway to Patagonia and the Antarctic. But, while many remote airports are marred by ugly bunker-style terminals, the charming timber-framed main building here doesn't detract from the natural setting.
Beauty Mark: The airport sits directly on the Beagle Channel, named for the H.M.S. Beagle, the vessel that carried Charles Darwin to South America.
Kansai International Airport, Osaka, Japan
While it's no longer the world's largest, the airport that rests on a giant man-made island two miles off the coast of Osaka is still a thing of wonder. Designed by architect Renzo Piano and opened in 1994, it is a single, sunlight-filled tube, a supersize airplane fuselage that stretches for more than a mile, with a roofline that moves through space like a wave. International passengers, departing from the terminal's top floor, are treated to a display of exposed structure—as in the architect's famous early work, the Centre Pompidou—revealing the exquisite complexity of this deceptively simple building.
Beauty Mark: Adjacent to the airport is Sky View, "the very first aero theme park in Japan," where you can play with flight simulators or watch takeoffs and landings from the observatory level.
Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia
One of a string of megaprojects conceived by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad to make Malaysia more competitive with its Asian neighbors, KLIA opened in 1998. Designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa in partnership with a local firm, KLIA's style is so weirdly eclectic that you couldn't mistake it for any other airport in the world. In the international departures hall, a series of Islamic-style domes—hyperbolic paraboloids—are held aloft by strange, chubby columns that taper toward the top. Even the long transfer hallways, with wooden ceilings pierced with tiny spotlights, possess unmistakable character.
Beauty Mark: The airport is part of Malaysia's Multimedia Super Corridor. Fast trains will take you directly to the country's newest cities, monumental Putrajaya and technologically sophisticated Cyberjaya.