Sunday, April 10, 2016

Airports, or, What Architecture is For (Again)

Architecture critic Chris Holbrook feels about airports the way I feel about so many modernist creations:
Why are airports built for everyone — the city, the airlines, the retailers — except for the very people who use them the most: the passengers?

One answer is a current trend of airport architecture that evokes an airport’s region and cityscape, yet doesn’t get bogged down in the small details of the interior design.

Read the proposals of top airport architects, and many of the words you’ll find could have been lifted from a travel brochure: “geology,” “prairie,” “landscapes,” “clouds,” “sun” and “horizon,” to name a few.

For a proposed terminal in Urumqi, China, architects at HKS were inspired by the “textures and lines” of the Silk Road.

For an airport completed in 2011 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the architect C├ęsar Pelli cites the “landscape,” “expansive sky” and “faraway horizon” as the design’s point of departure.

“Like the great railway stations, airports are also the contemporary equivalents of gateways,” Norman Foster said in an interview in Icon magazine, referring to his airport in Beijing, which is shaped like a dragon. “Very often they represent your first experience of a city or country. In that sense, they have the potential to excite and inspire.”
Holbrook notes that one problem is the sheer number of people involved; these days things like lighting, temperature control, security, and so on are all designed by specialist engineering firms, and the design as a whole must run a fearful gamut of review boards.

But the main problem is that the structures are designed as soaring monuments first, and only second (or third or fourth) as decent places to catch a plane. Holbrook complains that one new airport he passed through recently had lighting too bright for sleeping but not bright enough for reading and hideously uncomfortable chairs, plus it was freezing and at his gate, there were only 32 chairs even though the plane held 150 people, and there was not a single outlet for recharging our all-important devices.

But the faraway horizon! From space it looks like a dragon! See how it soars!


G. Verloren said...

And yet, if we built Brutalist airports designed for maximal practical efficiency, people would lament their lack of decoration and aesthetic appeal.

I only half jest, of course. The middle ground of a practical-yet-pleasing airport would be wonderful, and I would of course full endorse the notion. But here's the underlying issue as I see it.

"Why are airports built for everyone — the city, the airlines, the retailers — except for the very people who use them the most: the passengers?"

Holbrooks misses the simplest, most obvious answer: airports are built for everyone except the passengers because they are -built by- everyone except the passengers. The city is only concerned with promoting growth and tourism without overloading infrastructure; the airlines are only concerned with efficiency of flights; the retailers are only concerned with maximizing profit; et cetera.

Why would anyone stop to consider the passengers if doing so doesn't significantly impact their own agendas? If people still buy tickets and take flights despite the experience being unpleasant, what incentive is there for anyone involved to put any effort into pleasing the passengers?

It's not like most people who travel by air have much in the way of alternatives. After all, you can only fly to where the airports are. No matter how much nicer one airport is compared to another, if it takes you several hours out of your way, you're not going to pick it as an option - you're just going to take the quickest route and put up with the miserable conditions instead.

John said...

An airport built for the passengers wouldn't have to be brutal; on the contrary it could be pleasingly decorated on the inside and around the doors, where people actually see it. My beef isn't just that these airports aren't efficient, it's that millions have been spent on architecture in a way that makes them impressive from the right distant view but actually less pleasant to use. If the result is going to be uncomfortable, inconvenient, and ugly in the close-up view of users, why bother hiring a star architect to make it look like a dragon?

G. Verloren said...

I only brought up Brutalism because it's the logical extreme. (And, let's be honest, to poke a little bit of fun.)

But of course airports need not be spartan. I even said as much, which is why I'm a tad confused by your comment. Did you perhaps only skim mine? You also ask a question that I thought my comment had supplied the likely answer to, which further confuses me.

Why hire a star architect to make an airport look like a dragon? Because cities building airports don't care about the passenger experience, but rather their own agenda of promoting themselves in ways that look good on fliers and which they can use to attract business and tourism.

Cities simply have different priorities. They care about an airports solely in terms of landmarks and skylines, in the context of promulgating a unique "look" and "style" to the city which they can successfully market. Everything else is secondary, at best.

Consider - is the Sydney Opera House famous for its acoustics, or for its external appearance? If you offered a city an airport that would possess that level of instant recognition and visual iconography, wouldn't you expect them to be willing to sacrifice heavily in terms of pleasantness of the actual travel experience? Especially considering they know people don't realistically have any choice and will still use the airport either way?