From Beijing to Madrid to London to New York, architects are rediscovering the thrill of the airport.
Courtesy of Foster & Partners Beijing Capital International Airport's new Terminal 3, designed by Foster & Partners.
| Credit: Courtesy of Foster & Partners

The most beautiful airline terminal in the world is at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. These days, however, most of the airport’s more than 48 million annual passengers arrive and depart oblivious to it: the terminal in question, commissioned by TWA and completed in 1962, hasn’t been in use since 2000, not long before that pioneering airline went bankrupt and was bought by American Airlines. Architect Eero Saarinen’s design is a lyric poem in poured concrete, all curve and swoop, about the wonder of flight. But come September, passengers of low-cost carrier JetBlue Airways will have the option of towing their wheeled suitcases through this architectural dreamscape, checking in at an electronic kiosk, and continuing through Saarinen’s skinny tube-shaped connectors to the brand-new Terminal 5, one of the first built in this country since 9/11.

Given that the over-the-top sensuality of Saarinen’s design would seem to have limited relevance in today’s fraught air-travel environment, it’s an unexpected pleasure to see TWA’s contours reflected in a new generation of airline terminals. Airports are re-embracing the notion of beauty. Beijing’s newly opened Terminal 3, designed by Norman Foster’s Foster & Partners, is a miracle of rapid-fire engineering and army-ant–intensity construction; it’s also the world’s largest single building, with a ceiling that is a dizzying scrim of light and color. Madrid’s Barajas Airport’s 2006 Terminal 4, by Richard Rogers of Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners, is like an extra-long cathedral, an unending vault supported by a colorful procession of buttresses. And Heathrow’s T5, also by RSHP, which had its March opening disrupted by a massive failure of its luggage handling system, is otherwise notable for its undulating glass roof.

By contrast, the JetBlue terminal that rubs shoulders with the historic TWA hub is conspicuously earthbound and deliberately modest. Partly, this is in deference to Saarinen: “The challenge was to lay back, if you will,” says William D. Hooper, a principal architect at Gensler, the firm that designed the 650,000-square-foot building. “We never wanted to compete against Saarinen.” (While the new JetBlue terminal is connected to it, the landmarked Saarinen structure is owned by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.) Beijing’s new Terminal 3 has “a massive wow factor when you step into it,” says Foster & Partners CEO Mouzhan Majidi. JetBlue didn’t go for the wow—how could they?What could they have done that would have been more impressive than what Saarinen accomplished almost 50 years ago without the benefit of the computer modeling systems upon which contemporary architects rely?

According to Gensler’s handout on the terminal, “glamour has been replaced by efficiency.” And that’s what I notice when Hooper gives me a hard-hat tour of the terminal: less attention to image and more to function, and—in an era when air travel can be a trial—a refreshingly thoughtful approach to the basic needs of the passenger. Hooper leads me through the space as if I’m a departing passenger. We enter a long, gently curving hall with a sloping white corrugated-steel roof supported by metal latticework. Windows running the length of the terminal just below the roofline let in sunlight. The architecture, Hooper says, “is intended to be comfortable and generous without being overblown.”

In this prototypical post-9/11 environment, the ticket counters are off to the side—JetBlue travelers tend to arrive with boarding passes already in hand—and security is front and center. The layout accommodates 20 security lanes (although there’s no guarantee that the Transportation Security Administration will staff them all). I’m pleased when he points out that the floor in the security area is made of the spongy rubber that is used to cushion the pavement in playgrounds, a material friendly to shoeless feet.

But when Hooper tells me about the bench, I want to hug him. The bench, all 225 feet of it, is just beyond the security checkpoint. It’s there to aid in what Hooper calls “the revesting process.” In plain English, what this means is that when you pad away from the X-ray machine in your stocking feet, juggling your carry-on bags, your computer, your pocket change, your shoes, and maybe an infant or two, there will be a place to sit and put yourself back together, to revest. It’s a small gesture, but a considerate one. “JetBlue is returning humanity to air travel,” Hooper says.

“This terminal is the first true post-9/11 terminal, where everything is designed for a specific purpose,” says Tom Kennedy, an associate principal with the engineering firm Arup, which collaborated with Gensler on the project. “There’s no fat in the building whatsoever.” Indeed, JetBlue’s facility is intended to accommodate 20 million passengers a year via 26 gates, turning an aircraft around from arrival to departure in 30 minutes. On the tarmac side, there are dual taxiways, a configuration that allows a plane to zip into its arrival gate while a departing flight pulls out. Equipment to clean the aircraft between flights is stored in gateside closets, instead of at a central depot. The concourses are designed so that departing passengers will find shops and food on their right and arriving passengers will find restrooms on their right; the theory is that everyone will be able to move a little faster if fewer people are tempted to cut across the flow. In the economics of the low-cost carrier, seconds count and efficiency is beauty.

Functionally speaking, all the newest terminals, from majestic Beijing to understated JetBlue, share a common lineage; they are descendants of the Stansted model. This outlying London airport, designed by Foster & Partners and completed in 1991, was the first to, as Majidi puts it, “turn airport design upside down.” Mechanical systems were taken off the roof and hidden belowground, which transformed the roof into a lofty canopy. The result is an expansive, sunlight-flooded place where passengers can always pretty much see where they need to go. Foster is famous for designing Hong Kong’s airport, which opened in 1998, in such a way that passengers move through the building without thinking, like water through a sieve. The terminal’s billowy roof vaults work like subliminal arrows, nudging passengers in the right direction. Similarly, in Beijing, the color of the ceiling offers a clue to where in the two-mile-long structure you are and where you’re going. “We use this device of color as a way of breaking down zones in the building,” Majidi says. “In the processing terminal, the ceiling is all red. As you go toward the gates the ceiling starts to turn yellow.” At Madrid’s Barajas, space is also marked by shifting hues, from blue to green to orange to yellow.

Embedded in the architecture of JetBlue, as in Beijing, is the notion of intuitive design. Passengers are supposed to be guided less by signage, which Gensler regards as “visual clutter,” and more by cues offered by the building itself. Just beyond the security area at JetBlue, there’s something Hooper refers to as the “blue glowy wall.” The translucent expanse of color is, to be sure, a branding device, but it’s also there to cue passengers “that there’s something fun and exciting on the other side.” Beyond it is a high-ceilinged hub—the Marketplace—that Hooper describes as the terminal’s Times Square. “This is the nexus of this terminal,” he says. “Everyone comes through this space.” Actually, the terminal’s one touch of glamour is the Marketplace’s impressive roster of sit-down restaurants, including 5ive Steak, with a menu developed by STK’s Todd Mark Miller; Piquillo, a tapas bar created by Tia Pol’s Alexandra Raij; and AeroNuova, with an Italian menu by Mark Ladner of Del Posto. There will also be plenty of shopping and an enhanced selection of those crucial packaged meals (including sushi) to take on board. Travelers will be able to order meals from touch-screen monitors on tables at their gate’s seating area, an airline industry first.

According to David Rockwell, an architect famous for his fanciful interiors who was hired to work on the Marketplace area, the airline wanted to avoid the anonymity of many terminals. To Rockwell, this called for a celebration of public space, and he tried to give it a New York flavor. In what’s likely to be a very busy environment, he says, “If you can make movement intuitive, the density of people would be a joy to watch from above.” While international passengers arriving in Beijing enter the airport on the terminal’s highest level, a mezzanine where they can gaze down on the spectacle of the departing travelers, JetBlue’s architecture doesn’t allow that kind of sweeping gesture. Instead, Rockwell’s firm created grandstand seating for the Marketplace, which will let travelers watch “the dance of public movement” from above, much as you can stand on one of Grand Central Terminal’s balconies and observe the commuter pageant below. The big idea is that if the terminal is efficient enough, if you don’t feel as though you are trapped in purgatory with your fellow passengers, you might actually be able to take some pleasure in their company. Which, I guess, is what Hooper means when he talks about returning humanity to air travel.

Eero Saarinen died at 51, eight months before his TWA terminal opened. He never saw his vision of the “excitement of air travel” fully realized. Nor did he live to see a once magical adventure devolve into an ordeal. Now, however, the world’s most ambitious new airline terminals seem designed to bring back Saarinen’s brand of exuberance. Meanwhile, the Port Authority is busily stripping asbestos from Saarinen’s landmark and trying to time its reopening with the inauguration of JetBlue’s new facility in September. While it’s not clear what the old TWA terminal’s program will be—a conference center with an upscale restaurant is one possibility—JetBlue passengers will be able to use the building to infuse their travels with a little joie de vivre.

Karrie Jacobs is a T+L contributing editor.