December 3, 2014
by: Julia Adams
AIANY 2014 President Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, gave opening remarks at "Airports as Civic Space."Credit: Eve Dilworth Rosen
Stanis Smith, FRAIC, AIA, LEED AP, Executive Vice President for Buildings, Sector Leader, Airports, StantecCredit: Eve Dilworth Rosen
Stanis Smith, FRAIC, AIA, LEED AP, Executive Vice President for Buildings, Sector Leader, Airports, StantecCredit: Eve Dilworth Rosen

Airports built during the rise of commercial flying reflect the vast frontier the new technology created. Neo-futuristic designs, such as JFK International’s Eero Saarinen-designed TWA Terminal, focused on the glamour of flight, with grand, open spaces and large windows in the terminals. The result: the majority of airports built in the 1950s and ’60s refer more to the global and glamorous act of flying than they do to the city in which they are located. Following the deregulation of the airline industry, the efficiency-driven, hub-and-spoke airports of the 1970s and ’80s were built with undistinguished corporate design. Upon arrival, you could be anywhere; signs provide orientation. With as many as 50,000 employees working within one airport – as well as surrounding hotels, businesses, public transportation, malls, and even parks – architects are beginning to recognize airports as communities and small cities in themselves, vital limbs of their larger cities. Stanis Smith, executive vice president for Buildings at the mega-firm Stantec, came to the Center for Architecture on 11.14. 14 to discuss how Stantec is designing streamlined, place-oriented airports that make passengers as comfortable, happy, and stimulated as possible, an aim that coincides with that of maximizing the buying behavior of passengers waiting for their flights.

While the airplane offers a highly efficient method of transportation, the reality of flying is marked by congestion, idleness, and a sense of dislocation. This dissonance can be resolved through a more seamless airport design. One of Stantec’s key design strategies is minimizing the time spent in pre-security. Anxiety has been high at airports since 9/11, and security is often where this anxiety is concentrated. For many, security in airports is invasive and annoying; for others, it can be violating and racist. As security is only likely to intensify, designers are focusing on pre- and post-security spaces to alleviate associated anxiety. Entrance halls, which were once a focal point, are diminishing as self-service technology increases and ritual farewells dwindle. Stantec is designing smaller entrances where a passenger can move quickly through security, with a constant view of the terminal beyond. Legibility is an essential part of creating comfort through good design. “Signage is an admission of failure,” Smith said. Stantec has also focused on creating comfortable spaces immediately following security where people can reassemble themselves “with a sense of dignity” before entering the terminal. He admitted that “when people feel comfortable, relaxed, they shop, and airports are sensitive to that.”

The greatest point of focus for Stantec, though, is arrival. After flying, airports are travelers’ first point of entry into a city, and 21st-century travelers have far more vivid expectations than did their predecessors. How does an airport make a passenger feel, after a few hours suspended in virtual time and space, that they have arrived at their destination, for example, in New York, Santiago, or Vancouver? The feeling of dislocation during travel occurs not only during the flight itself, but in the “nowhere” spaces of an airport before and after. Stantec’s strategy is to highlight what distinguishes a given place, for example, to “celebrate the natural beauty and traditional art of British Columbia,” or “celebrate the locks and canals around which the city of Ottawa grew.” The firm then collaborates with artists, designers, performers, and art collectors to realize their theme. In many cases, the designs, colorful and sometimes wondrous, use spectacle: Native totem poles in the Vancouver airport, indigenous dancers in Nassau, Bahamas, the brontosaurus in Chicago-O’Hare, canoes and waterfalls in Ottawa. From one perspective, Stantec is Disneyfying the airport, creating a simulated and ticketed pedestrian paradise for the purpose of entertaining, spending, and masking the reality of waiting.

Just as government deregulation and the increase of competition radically changed air travel, the Internet is now challenging the travel industry. While flight has significantly diminished the “distance” between places, the Internet has virtually eradicated it, and far more efficiently. Air travel must keep up with the simulations of the Internet; Google Earth, Google Cultural Institute, online streaming, and communication technologies are all a threat to tourism and business air travel. Though Smith said that people are flying more, infrastructure, in addition to design, will help maintain airports’ relevance. He emphasized the importance of intermodal transportation between the airport and city, as well as connectivity on site. An air tram built between Vancouver and YVR airport has not only created greater access, but has resulted in reverse commuting and development along the train-line. Airports, as they continue to branch out to the greater globe, must also root themselves in their physical city, to become vibrant, civic neighborhoods and aerotropoleis.

Julia Adams is a Public Information Assistant at the Center for Architecture.

Event: Airports as Civic Space
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.14.14
Speakers: Stanis Smith, FRAIC, AIA, LEED AP, Executive Vice President for Buildings, Sector Leader, Airports, Stantec; and Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, 2014 President, AIA New York Chapter
Organizers: AIANY Transportation and Infrastructure Committee



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