Eight of the best designs in airport architecture

by Helen Dalley on Jun 20, 2018 in Architecture , Top Story
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As cities compete to offer the best facilities to frequent flyers, architects are creating inspirational projects that give travellers reasons to linger a little longer. Perspective rounds up the top design and design features in airport architecture 


Winner of the 2018 Skytrax World's Best Airport award for the sixth consecutive year – based on the impressions of nearly 14 million flyers from more than 100 countries – Changi Airport is one of Southeast Asia's largest transit hubs and arguably its best equipped, with everything from free 24-hour movie theatres to a 15m wild corkscrew slide.

Opened last October, Terminal 4 was designed by architecture company Benoy and offers automated check-in that relies on face-scanning technology and smart security systems, as well as a heritage zone with a nine-panel facade depicting the changing architectural styles of the city state's shops and houses from the 1800s to the 1950s.

The Jewel Changi Airport extension, a spheroid-shaped dome designed by Safdie Architects and set to open next year, will further boost Singapore's stopover appeal with attractions including a canopy bridge suspended 23m above the ground and the world's tallest indoor waterfall, the 40m tall Rain Vortex, which will transform into a light and sound show at night. There's even a five-storey indoor garden, Forest Valley.

Jewel Changi Airport's Forest Valley

Jewel Changi Airport’s Forest Valley


While some might miss the old Kai Tak site, where planes flew perilously yet exhilaratingly close to the neighbourhood's tightly packed skyscrapers, Chek Lap Kok – a piece of reclaimed land in the South China Sea off Lantau Island – is comfortingly efficient in terms of airport architecture. The Airport Express railway swiftly transports passengers to Central in 24 minutes, while the deceptively easy design – arrivals on the ground floor, departures on the first – makes Hong Kong International a cinch to negotiate. Foster + Partners was commissioned to oversee the build, which Norman Foster has described as a celebration of the modern age of travel. Featuring a terminal roof inspired by ocean waves, it is one of the largest and lightest indoor roofs in the world at a length of almost 1km. With passenger numbers expected to rise to 100 million annually by 2030, a third runway will be completed by 2024.

Bird's eye view


Opened in April 2017, Oslo International is the first airport building globally to receive an Excellent BREEAM rating for its sound attitude towards sustainability. It also scooped Best Airport Terminal Design at the Future Travel Experience Global conference in the United States.

Bjørn Olav Susæg of Nordic, the Oslo-based firm that designed the terminal, says the goal was to cut energy consumption in half; the terminal's walls and windows aim to make maximum use of daylight, while natural materials, such as locally sourced stone and wood from sustainably managed forests, are used generously throughout the building. In addition to being a highly energy-efficient material, wood gives the terminal a distinctive Nordic identity, says Susæg. In terms of waste, the terminal project has achieved a sorting grade of 91 per cent, with just 9 per cent of discarded construction materials classified as general waste. Despite the airport's increase in size, the maximum walking time to gates has remained the same.

AVINOR/Oslo Lufthavn Gardermoen Pir nord fra lift


This year is an important landmark for Paris-CDG, as it gears up to underline its status as a hub for the best Paris has to offer, with a specially commissioned art piece by Nathalie Decoster, a new 80-room hotel by Yotelair, a multilingual library and a 3D Timescope machine through which passengers can admire Parisian landmarks in times past. Three new restaurants helmed by Michelin-starred chefs are also set to debut.

The airport opened in 1974 and was designed by French architect Paul Andreu – considered one of the world's foremost airport design experts – who believes the best airports are not just a building but a landscape. Andreu's Terminal 1 was built in a shape reminiscent of an octopus, the focus of which is a circular building that has seven satellite buildings. A modernisation programme of CDG is currently under way, including an 80,000sqm (860,000sqf) building connecting the South and West terminals that's set to open by 2020.



Positioned at the edge of the Arabian Gulf, Hamad International Airport's waterside setting is referred to in the wave-like passenger roof terminal, while the Emiri Terminal riffs on the location with its sail-like curvature and the mosque resembles a drop of water. It was designed by HOK, which says its aim was to emphasise Qatari hospitality and the airport's setting by celebrating form, surface and light. A deliberate lack of ornamentation means passengers are better able to understand the spatial function within the terminal, it adds.

Hamad International is one of only six airports globally to receive five-star status by Skytrax. The Qatar Airways Al Mourjan business lounge, which features a five-tier crystal chandelier over a water feature, is pure extravagance, as is the ostentatious gold-plated coffee kiosk Qataf.

Like the best modern airports, there's plenty of art to admire. In collaboration with Qatar Museums, it has exhibited pieces by Keith Haring, Bill Viola, Tom Otterness and Marc Quinn, with the latest addition being a 10m sculpture by US pop artist Kaws.



Much of the land close to Zurich airport is classed as conservation area, so passengers with an extended layover keen to escape the busy airport environment can consider hiring a bicycle or skates (Nordic walking poles are also available) and taking to one of the quiet, flat trails where the only people encountered are most likely plane-spotters. The C500 Landside Centre and C500

Airside Centre were added by Grimshaw Architects as part of a major upgrade, with the former acting as the airport's principal hub and featuring a glazed curtain wall at its west facade to capitalise on the views of the surrounding countryside.

Zurich airport is also the site of Switzerland's largest construction project: the 180,000sqm (2 million sqf) Circle complex designed by Riken Yamamoto & Field Shop, set to open in 2019. From the outside it looks like another airport building, yet internally it will aim to replicate the vibe of a small city, with two Hyatt hotels, a convention centre and office space – Microsoft Switzerland is relocating its headquarters here. Other facilities at the space include ArtHub, a space for private collections, galleries and pop-up installations, and MindHub, a multifunctional space for meetings.

Swiss Transport Museum


With one of the largest collection of Pacific Northwest native American art in the world, Vancouver International reflects British Columbia's diverse landscape and people with sculptures, totem poles, transformation masks and weavings inspired by First Nations people, including the Inuit, Coast Salish and Nuu-chah-nulth. Highlights include British Columbian artist Bill Reid's bronze sculpture, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii – The Jade Canoe, which is populated by passengers from Haida Gwaii's mythology including bears, beavers and a dogfish. The Great Wave by Lutz Haufschild, meanwhile, depicts the power of the ocean along BC's coastline by means of a dynamic glass wall with large waves rolling towards the viewer. The airport was designed by Vancouver-based Stantec Architecture and incorporates blues and greens to reflect the land, sea and sky and create "an unmistakable sense of place," the firm says. Architectural highlights include the Graham Clark Atrium, which features a 10m-tall totem pole and a series of curved acrylic panels depicting the Northern Lights.



While many US airports are criticised for their unimaginative design, Denver bucks the trend with an iconic white-tented terminal rooftop intended to mimic the mountains framed behind. Designed by Fentress Bradburn Architects, the Jeppesen Terminal's peak roof, pays homage to the region's snow-capped peaks and its Native American past, and has become a symbol of the city. The adjacent Westin, added in 2015 by Gensler along with a transit centre, is referred to as either the moustache or sunglasses building by locals, thanks to a sharp dip in the centre of its long horizontal plane.

As a growing airport – DEN handled 58.3 million passengers in 2016 but was built for just US$50 million – a US$1.8-billion renovation, the Great Hall project, is currently in the works, which will upgrade the Jeppesen Terminal by creating new shopping and dining options and a new check-in area. An independent testing by internet speed company Ookla found that the airport's Wi-Fi is the fastest in the world – more than three times faster than cellular service.

denver exterior

This is an excerpt from “Terminally cool", a feature article from the May issue of Perspective magazine. 

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