The New Architectural Wisdom of Airports: Ikea, iPads, And Ice Skating Rinks

Denver International Airport
(Photograph © Ellen Jaskol / Sketch © Curtis Fentress / Architectural drawing © Fentress Architects.)

Throughout history, the architecture and design of airports has served as a kind of litmus test of societal conditions. The Jet Age sprang from the postwar boom, and because only the wealthy could fly, airports were grand, luxurious, and romanticized. That changed shortly after the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 allowed airlines to start charging competitive rates. Flight became accessible to the masses, and the glamorous honeymoon period came to an end. “Airports of that generation became giant people processors,” characterized by “ten-foot-tall, fluorescent-lit corridors,” design curator Donald Albrecht explained to ARTINFO recently. Today, we may be passing into yet another era: a post-9/11, increasingly globalized world, where arriving two hours before your flight is no longer a helpful tip, but a mandate. Now that we're spending more time than ever in these massive global gateways, architects have responded by trying to make all that downtime a little more pleasant.  

One such architect is Curtis Fentress, the subject of Denver Art Museum's new “Now Boarding: Fentress Airports + the Architecture of Flight.” DAM’s exhibition, curated by Albrecht, surveys six airports of Fentress's design — Denver International, Seoul's IncheonSeattle-TacomaMineta San JoseRaleigh-Durham, and LAX — not only presenting Fentress as a member of a new generation of planners that seek to improve the passenger experience, but also examining the greater theme of the evolution of airports. 

Worldwide, airports have been adding amenities to help ease the boredom that can occur between flights. In Seattle, Fentress gave SEA-TAC passengers an open marketplace in the central terminal. While Fentress took a localized approach by taking cues from the city's iconic Pike Place Market (you can even buy fish and have them shipped home), airport architects around the world are trying different methods. JFK and Hong Kong International have taken the high-tech route and outfitted their terminals with iPads, offering passengers the option to surf the Internet, check their email, and order food and beverage from the surrounding concession stands. Fly through Paris, and you may spend your layover in Ikea. The affordable Swedish furniture juggernaut has outfitted Terminal 3 of Charles de Gaulle with (we assume) ektorps and karlstads of all types, providing a place for worn, harried travelers to rest their heels.

In the past 30 years, the value of air cargo has grown at 10 times the rate of the world's GDP, and is expected to reach $137 billion in 2017, according to market research firm Lucintel. As a result, airports are not only becoming more comfortable, they’re becoming the central hub around which new cities are formed. UNC Chapel Hill professor John D. Kasarda coined the term "aerotropolis" (and in 2011 penned a book by the same name) for cities planned and built to serve airports.

Take Korea's Incheon International, for example. Built on top of a landfill 40 miles outside of Seoul, it features its own skating rink, cultural museum, and an assortment of other lavish amenities — all worthy investments for an airport that transported 34 million passengers and 2.5 million tons of cargo last year. Incheon's heavy traffic, as well as infinitely expandable building site on the shore of the Yellow Sea, has prompted developers to launch the luxurious, 1,500-acre Sangdo International Business district, slated to include towering skyscrapers, international schools, its own Central Park, a Venice-inspired system of canals, and a Jack Nicklaus golf course.

“For businesses that are tied to global travel, being near the airport has a great advantage," Albrecht told ARTINFO. “There’s no point in being downtown if your business is connected to the airport.” In other parts of the globe, the aerotropolis trend is taking off as high-rise communities are being built around Memphis International, O’Hare, and Dubai, while China has an 83,000-square-meter, fine-art, free-trade “Freeport” just outside Beijing Capital International in the works.

Back in Denver, where Fentress designed a roof of white peaks to evoke the surrounding Rocky Mountains, a current expansion project aims to add new restaurants, a hotel, and FasTracks commuter shuttle, facilities all to be housed in a lavish structure (a scaled-down version of a Santiago Calatrava design, developed by Gensler after the starchitect walked away from the project last year). The hope is that while most will use the new to travel from the airport into the city, downtown denizens may take the opposite route and use the shuttle to catch an art exhibition or a bit of fine dining. Although the likelihood of this happening remains to be seen, it's a signal of a new age in which the means of travel is also the destination.

To see some of these new destination airports, click the slide show