The average U.S. airport is approximately 40 years old. That makes them seriously outdated–which will come as no surprise if you’ve recently passed through those gates of hell, LaGuardia and JFK.
As a result, American airports are facing the necessity of an airport building boom. T.J. Shultz, president of the Airport Consultants Council, recently told Architectural Record that many of these aging airports face a choice: “Authorities and designers have done all they can to account for differing airline service trends and new technologies coming into play, and now they’re in a position where they have to either refurbish or rebuild.” Today, 50 U.S. airports have plans to invest an estimated $70 billion over the next three years to modernize their buildings.
It’s a huge opportunity for cities to rethink transit–and for designers to help rethink the airport. Co.Design asked four architecture firms which airport they’d redesign and why. Here are their answers.
Raze Rikers Island And Fix New York LaGuardia
Terreform ONE cofounder Mitchell Joachim didn’t mince words when I asked which airport he would redesign: “Redesign New York’s LaGuardia–everyone thinks it’s deplorable and I myself agree.” I don’t mind LGA at all–despite its age, it’s usually fast. Yet many people have argued it’s time to rebuild. Former Vice President Joe Biden famously said that the airport feels like a third-world country (an opinion shared with Donald Trump).
“LGA has been a certified agonizing sore for N.Y.C. at least a decade or more,” Joachim says over email. “Over the years, the infrastructural issues have been jerry-rigged as the airport desperately tried to sustain its high volume of passengers.”
Set on a limited site and pinned in by water, LGA presents a tricky design challenge. Joachim thinks the solution lies beyond the water, on the prison of Rikers Island, which he calls “a city institution that’s in even more dire straights.”
“Rikers Island is the epitome of failed American prisons with high recidivism rate,” he continues. “It suffers from an inexorable wave of social injustices, internal abuse, and community outrage.”
Joachim points out that Mayor De Blasio has already announced plans to reduce the prison population and close it in a decade, and expanding LGA after it closes is a natural solution to two serious problems. “It almost seems obvious to replace a prison with a grand municipal amenity,” he says. “LGA is the gateway to our city. It needs to meet the high standards of other great airports from around the world. A land grant from the city will give it an enormous capability to improve its functionality.”
He sent us a quick mockup of an expansion using Hong Kong’s airport, above–which happens to be the one that Biden thinks is the perfect model for the modern American airport.
Make JFK Into A Worthy Gateway To America
Ibrahim Ibrahim, the managing director of Portland Design, part of Perkins+Will, also had a very clear idea about which airport needs an urgent fix: New York’s John F. Kennedy, the supposed gateway to America. “Every time I visit the U.S. from the U.K., it doesn’t in any way align with the sense of awe, wonder, excitement, and newness of the Big Apple and the Empire State–it’s just the opposite, in fact,” he says, with its unkempt buildings and their crowded, cluttered, and stressful interior spaces.
Ibrahim thinks JFK needs to address two main ideas. The first is “hygiene”: not the literal cleanliness of the airport, but its “overall ability to maintain a high-functioning, healthy, positive, uplifting, and memorable experience for passengers and staff. The second concept, “duty of care,” refers to JFK’s obligation to meet its customers’ basic needs–with “clear access to important information, food and beverage, toilets, comfort, peace of mind, and humanity.” Every step of the passenger’s journey needs to be addressed and, first of all, simplified.
“Right now, there’s simply too much going on: too much freestanding signage, too many promotions, an overabundance of kiosks, countless vendors, blaring TV screens competing with important public announcements, and one too many advertisements,” he says. “Travelers are bombarded by distractions, and are presented with too many choices when they arrive at a point of a decision. This further contributes to a sense of stress.”
Clear communication, clear sight lines, openness and airiness, adequate and place-appropriate lighting, and intuitive wayfinding would be paramount to solving these problems, he says. The lighting should be warmer and more inviting. The queues, better marked with informational graphics on architectural divider walls. The security checkpoints, better designed with calming color palettes, lighting, and acoustics–and post-security decompression transitional areas where passengers can calmly put themselves back together before jumping into restaurants, shops, and gates. This area, he says will need “softer lighting, comfortable furniture, and different places catered to different types of travelers (families vs. business travelers, for example).”
JFK’s gates and shopping need fixing, too: “[Q]ueues [to these places] intermix because there’s no room for people to go,” he adds. “This makes it confusing and stressful for shoppers and for those who need to board their flights.” Food is another problem–the airport needs more options for healthier food and calming spaces to have a meal. Ibrahim believes that the airport should mimic the city itself and embrace “a positive, exciting, and ever-changing retail experience” with a solid brand language that permeates the entire airport.
Ibrahim illustrates his point with a project Portland designed–the commercial areas of the Nice/Cote d’Azur Airport in Nice, France. “They represent the essence of the Cote d’Azur, and create a synergistic feeling through the incorporation of lots of greenery, images of the beach, and restaurants designed to emulate a seaside dining experience,” he says. Another example? Changi Airport in Singapore, which Ibrahim sees as the very best of its class. “Its design is fundamentally human and beautiful, incorporating sensory experiences like butterfly gardens, plant gardens, and swimming pools for travelers,” he says. This kind of humane, calming design could turn JFK into an airport on par with both.
Enhance Buffalo Niagara International Airport
Michael Tunkey, principal at CannonDesign, doesn’t want to raze anything. On the contrary, he loves the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. “I appreciate well-designed, smaller airports like this,” he tells me. “It’s convenient, welcoming, and the architecture is also surprisingly sophisticated.” For him, these type of airports could be the solution to fix air travel, which “has become another inhospitable form of hospitality.”
He thinks that Buffalo Airport should build on its strengths as a hub for a smaller but historically important city. It should keep differentiating itself from banal mega-hubs by bringing the city inside, like “infusing the space with the spirit of remarkable local institutions like one of the world’s best contemporary art museums, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, or the country’s most ambitious startup competition, 43North.” If successful, “such a place would enrich the travel experience for visitors and potentially transform the airport to more of a destination for those who call Buffalo home.”
Redesign LGA, JFK, and EWR into one master plan
Snarkitecture partner Benjamin Porto lives in New York. Like Joachim and Ibrahim, he sees plenty of problems with LGA and JFK, as well as Newark in New Jersey–as well as opportunity.
“It would be interesting to redesign JFK, LGA, and EWR together into one cohesive master plan,” he tells me via email. “They are essentially the three Triumphant Gates of N.Y.C. and [they] should look as such.” Much like Tunkey, Porto believes that an airport is a city’s chance to make a good first impression. And while the commercial airline industry will make it challenging for airports to escape what he calls “the aesthetic of efficiency that basically makes every airport look like a decrepit bus depot,” it’s time to recover their historic roles as grand entrances to urban centers. “It would be interesting for an airport to play a bigger role as a public resource,” he points out. “Parks, libraries, gyms, museums, gardens could all live in an airport. Some airports have that already, but not in any cohesive format.”
Where would you put the endless rows of duty-free shops? His answer: Just get rid of them.
“[A]s classic retail suffers and turns more toward a combination of online sales and experience-driven marketing campaigns, I could see a solution where [a company like] Amazon sets up a special one-hour Prime Airport so people can shop from their phone and have items delivered to the gate,” he says. That may sound idealistic since airports’ have big revenue streams coming from retail, but it would vastly improve the user experience for flyers. “Imagine stepping off a 20-hour flight and walking through a park to get your bags, and that extra pair of socks you ordered when you landed is waiting for you at the taxi line,” he imagines. “That’s the future. Not pushing past zombies through another glossy luxury mall.”
There’s a common theme between these four architects. They wouldn’t just make airports more efficient–they would make air travel humane again. To do that, we need to embrace what makes us human, and that’s rooted in our local cultures and places, not in endless rows of cookie-cutter shops and restaurants that look the same, no matter where you fly.