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Industry News


26 Apr 2019

Why Are Airports the Cities of the Future?

Why Are Airports the Cities of the Future?

If you want to know about some of the cities of the future, you should spend time studying the design of airports. Despite being one of the newest architectural typologies, airports are some of the few structures with the magnitude, intricacy and density to rival cities. At airports, systemic urban conditions are exaggerated, making them fascinating case studies for urban design.

It’s no easy task to keep up with the huge demand for air travel. The speed of change often makes airport projects archaic as soon as they are built. Airport architects find themselves the problem of having to design buildings with the highest operational performance standards, while also creating unified experience for the 21st century traveller.

Aerial Futures, a US-based non-profit organisation has explored innovation in the architecture of flight, technology and the broader urban mobility ecosystem. It asked several of the world’s leading designers on what we can acquire from aviation infrastructure and apply to similar, large-scale urban environments. Here are some of the findings:

Cultural gateways

Airports have been evaluated as places that look the identical wherever they are in the world. However, airports today are each designed to raise a sense of identity, and reflecting the local culture and community. Denver International Airport was designed to be a symbol for the city and the region. Its sculpted roofs gives you the impression that you are looking at the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, as well as the tepees of Native Americans that are indigenous to the surrounding areas.

Many travellers’ first impression of a new destination is the the airport they land at. When they step off the aircraft, go through immigration and wait for their luggage. Airports today are cultural gateways, as much as they are transportation facilities.

A local design is crucial for people to know they’ve arrived somewhere special. It’s also critical for locals to embrace their airport and feel that it respects their culture and identity.

Integrated mobility design

Airports are at the very cutting edge of the transportation revolution, embracing new frontiers in smart technologies, digital mobility and the sharing economy. Changes in lifestyle and technology require that airport designs are able to adapt quickly to future challenges. “Making the impossible possible with a more seamless and on-demand passenger experience,” says Samantha Flores, architect at Corgan and director of Hugo, the firm’s research incubator.

“At Hugo, we’re testing replicable innovations, from reconfiguring the curbside for Uber’s flying taxies to integrating biometric security screening and ubiquitous connectivity through the Internet of Things. These explorations anticipate the future of urban mobility, shifts in consumer behavior, and the extrapolation of emerging technologies to create a more human-centred design.”

Environmental design

As cities densify, larger buildings become more and more deprived of natural sunlight and greenery. Airports generally are not known for their focus on nature but designers are  trying to change this by introducing interior gardens and landscapes that help passengers to relax.  Jaron Lubin, principal at Safdie Architects, led the design team consortium for Singapore’s newest airport addition.

“At Jewel Changi Airport, we challenged the conventional model of airport design and brought the public realm into direct contact with nature at the heart of the terminals. Jewel Changi Airport includes a public garden and the world’s largest indoor waterfall, surrounded by a vibrant marketplace.” The project has become a worldwide attraction to both travellers and local Singaporeans, while enhancing airport operations for smooth transitions to and from Changi.

The third space

Airports are no longer characterized exclusively by air travel; they are now destinations in themselves. Airports around the world are developing sophisticated programmes for business, leisure and entertainment. Antoinette Nassopoulos Erickson, senior partner at Foster + Partners, describes airports as spaces of enormous potential for social and cultural life.

“In the future, we will see airports evolving to become cleaner and more sustainable multimodal transportation hubs. Combining easy connectivity with great places to work, live and play, they will transform into ‘mixed-use developments’ — social spaces that are vibrant urban centres in their own right.”

Curated experiences

The modern traveller seeks more and more memorable experiences: to be hooked and entertained, and  to discover new spaces that relate to their lifestyles. Steve Dumas of Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW) studies how customers respond to retail environments. He sees airport retail design as highly localised and curated.

“For the renovation of T1 at LAX, LA’s Asian influences of origami and the bento box were combined with the surprise and delight sensibility of Southwest Airlines. This provided a layer of experiences for passengers to explore. At the Tom Bradley International Terminal, the grand spaces of the terminal were treated as if they were outdoors, creating plazas, streets and terraces with alfresco restaurants.”

Constructed approaches

As major mobility hubs, airports are in operation 24/7, 365 days a year. HOK, the architectural firm responsible for major airport redevelopment projects around the world like LaGuardia, has taken up an inventive phase-by-phase approach, in which the old building is gradually deconstructed and replaced by newer facilities — all with zero operational downtime.

“Phasing the construction of these projects can expedite the process and allow the team to achieve its design goals while limiting disruption to passengers and operators,” says Robert Chicas, HOK’s director of aviation.

Aviation infrastructure is a testing zone for what’s achievable in the future. Aviation merges the culture and identity of cities, and of local and global cultures, as well as the wider mobility ecosystem.