Design Plus: In Search of Stylish Airports

As Heathrow Airport auctions off the entire contents of Terminal 1, we take a look at airport design and feel nostalgic for the jet age.

by Mark Tungate , Adforum

My imagination took flight the other day when I read that the entire contents of Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 1 were being auctioned off. And I mean everything – from seating to baggage carousels. Over the years I’ve become something of a connoisseur of airport design; after all, I’ve spent enough time in them.

It might have been fun to touch down at the sale for a look, but I doubt I would have bought anything. Hand baggage restriction frames belong in Departures, not at home. And it’s not as if the furniture had the glamour of, say, the seating at a 1960s Pan Am terminal. 

Airport design is notoriously difficult to get right. When I was researching The Escape Industry, my book about the travel business, I came across an article in The New York Times that seemed to put its finger on the problem facing architects, who face “an almost impossible juggling act” as they try to “create art and, at the same time, make room for sightlines, security checkpoints and control rooms”.

Intriguingly, my wish for a more Mad Men airport experience might be granted by the new terminal building at Marseilles Provence airport, designed by London’s Foster + Partners. The new building is supposed to be “the missing link” between the original 1960s terminal and a 1990s extension by Richard Rogers.

Happily the new structure sounds as if it will be more Sixties than Nineties: “The new terminal features a panoramic terrace overlooking the airport and the landscape beyond, and is entirely top lit, capturing the bright Provencal sunlight and paying homage to the bold architectural spirit of Fernand Pouillon's original building.”

As far as I can tell, the focus when building an airport terminal is on a spectacular exterior rather than a comfortable or stylish interior. For example, the new design for Novy Urengoy airport in Siberia will be based on “traditional reindeer herder tents”. But I’m willing to bet that the interior will, as usual, look more like a shed.

There is at least one airport that gets it right. Samui International Airport in Thailand is frequently described as one of the world’s most beautiful airports, with its “elegant” interiors of locally sourced wood and furnishings that, for once, make a flight delay feel like a pleasant experience.

Meanwhile, the iconic 1960s TWA Flight Center at JFK in New York, designed by Eero Saarinen (was there ever a better name for an airport architect?) is shortly to be reopened as a hotel

Rather than denying its heritage, it will lovingly evoke “the spirit and glamour of the jet age”, with a lounge that retains Saarinen’s curvy furnishing in “chilli pepper red”. The building even includes a museum devoted to the era. 

Frankly I can’t wait to visit. But what I’d like to see even more is an actual, working airport that can provide a measure of glamour. If you come across one, let me know.