Airports, Designed for Everyone but the Passenger

A rendering of the proposed Urumqi International Airport North Terminal in China.

One morning in 1977, Brian Eno, the electronica pioneer and former synthesizer player for the band Roxy Music, was sitting in an airport in Cologne, Germany, and was deeply disturbed.

“The light was beautiful, the building was beautiful,” Mr. Eno told a Dutch television interviewer. “They spent hundreds of millions of pounds on the architecture and everything — except the music.”

Mr. Eno was so unhappy with the music in the airport (or maybe we should say inspired) that he recorded “Music for Airports,” intended to serve as a soundtrack for the harried air traveler. The album, which was briefly played in a terminal in La Guardia Airport in the ’80s, is hailed today as a high-water mark of ambient music.

Roughly 40 years later, during a layover in Madrid’s airport, I started to think about Mr. Eno and how, by today’s standards, his complaint about airports and bad music almost seems quaint.

Airports have been drastically transformed since the 1970s, when you could smoke anywhere, stroll leisurely through security and hug your loved one at the gate before boarding the plane.

Passing through security these days takes forever and sometimes borders on harassment. The lighting is brighter than a World Series night game. Almost all the chairs have armrests, preventing you from splaying out. And the ambient noise — the endless gate changes, the last calls for boarding, the CNN late-breaking news — makes it almost impossible to relax.

It’s no wonder then that passengers often feel more like prisoners than clients.

How did we get here? Who is to blame? Why isn’t there a place in airports for not traveling? Not moving? Yawning a bit, slowing down? Catching some shut-eye maybe, or at least a little peace and quiet?

Why are airports built for everyone — the city, the airlines, the retailers — except for the very people who use them the most: the passengers?

One answer is a current trend of airport architecture that evokes an airport’s region and cityscape, yet doesn’t get bogged down in the small details of the interior design.

Read the proposals of top airport architects, and many of the words you’ll find could have been lifted from a travel brochure: “geology,” “prairie,” “landscapes,” “clouds,” “sun” and “horizon,” to name a few.

For a proposed terminal in Urumqi, China, architects at HKS were inspired by the “textures and lines” of the Silk Road.

For an airport completed in 2011 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the architect César Pelli cites the “landscape,” “expansive sky” and “faraway horizon” as the design’s point of departure.

“Like the great railway stations, airports are also the contemporary equivalents of gateways,” Norman Foster said in an interview in Icon magazine, referring to his airport in Beijing, which is shaped like a dragon. “Very often they represent your first experience of a city or country. In that sense, they have the potential to excite and inspire.”

There is nothing blatantly wrong with this model, but I’m not convinced that it should be the future of airports.

Sure, one day I want to see the Silk Road, and I like expansive skies, too (though I see plenty already when I’m in the plane). But many airports are threatening to be a kind of camera obscura, a simulacrum of a city that, if we’re on a layover, we’ll never see.

Architects may need to spend more of their creative energies on the traveler’s experience than on creating an interactive postcard.

There is another explanation for our perpetual discomfort in today’s airports: the sheer number of moving parts involved.

With the design of a house, the players include the client and the architect and the contractor, maybe a home inspector. Plans need to be approved by the city or the region. And that’s about it.

The design of an airport, however, imposes platoons of specialists — interior designers, specialized engineering firms (for lighting, structure and landscape) and quantity surveyors — most of whom are even less concerned with the passenger’s comfort than architects are.

I wonder what we may be losing with this current emphasis on ceding important decisions to specialists. When discussing his work, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was fond of saying, “God is in the details.” Thanks to star architects, we now have towering, impressive halls of light and space. These new airports are the cathedrals of the 21st century: centers of communication, travel, family and commerce.

But where are “God’s details” in these new cathedrals? Are the details in the shining new hubs of the Orient or in the airports of Europe’s capital cities. Will they be in the airports of tomorrow: the late Zaha Hadid’s new terminal in Beijing or Moshe Safdie’s new greenhouse addition in Singapore?

Luckily, there are still some architects working who haven’t forgotten their profession’s obligation to please the people who use their space.

Richard Rogers is one. Mr. Rogers and his firm, Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners, create buildings that offer alternative spaces — “public realm” is their phrase — where you can experience the building in a casual, relaxed way. (The square in front of the Pompidou Center in Paris, which Mr. Rogers designed with Renzo Piano, is one example.)

Moreover, Mr. Rogers’s “inside-outside” approach, which uses the building’s innards — its water pipes, ventilation ducts, escalators, etc. — as the facade itself, offers a new way of imagining a building’s interior. With the inside now outside, a building’s interior is more open and flexible — space can be converted and reconfigured without worrying about disturbing most of the building’s innards.

As a big fan of his work, I was (almost) pleased when American Airlines decided to route me through Madrid on my back way to France last year. My thinking was that Mr. Rogers, who was awarded the Pritzker, architecture’s highest honor, the year after his new terminals opened in 2006, could deliver a space, along with his collaborator, the architect Antonio Lamela, that prioritized the traveler and his needs.

The layover did not begin well. At 6 a.m., we landed at Terminal 4S, a satellite terminal. Bleary-eyed, I walked almost seven minutes to the other end of the terminal, which is lit by light fixtures that are too bright to allow you to sleep and not bright enough to read.

We were quickly whisked away via tram to a larger building, Terminal 4. Here, as with many European hubs, they don’t assign gates to flights more than an hour in advance. For those waiting, the terminal provides clusters of aqua-blue chairs that are scattered around almost haphazardly, like puddles might form after a quick rain. The banks of steel chairs have two armrests separating four chairs, which, unless you’re about 6 or younger, make it impossible to splay out.

Finally, I saw that my flight was assigned a gate, and I sleepily stumbled there. The chairs were a different material, rubberlike instead of steel, but also had the annoying armrests. Curiously, given how new the airport is, at this gate, there are no outlets for recharging your laptop or smartphone.

For heat, there is one silver cylinder-shaped grate, perforated evenly with holes the size of children’s fingers. The system barely works. Or more precisely, I think the heat works well, but the cylinders aren’t enough to heat a space with six-story-high ceilings.

Worst of all, there aren’t enough seats for those waiting: I counted 32 at our gate for a flight on an Airbus 320, which, if the flight is full, holds about 150 passengers.

All you can do is stand up (unless you’re lucky enough to get one of the coveted chairs); search for another sweater; and wonder why Mr. Rogers and Mr. Lamela (and architects of other airports) have created a building so devoid of the details that most of us care about: comfortable furniture; cheerful ambience; and inviting interiors that allow us to experience the space and, at the same time, unwind.

To be fair, Mr. Rogers is not working with a clean slate. As with any architect of an airport, he is forced to work within limitations imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration (or a country’s equivalent), an airport’s city, environmental laws, and other agencies involved with the zoning, safety and construction.

Moreover, Mr. Rogers and other airport architects are designing for a post-9/11 world, where security concerns often trump comfort and, sadly, good architecture.

Architects have to try to create art and, at the same time, make room for sightlines, security checkpoints and control rooms. It’s an almost impossible juggling act, I realize, and it’s a small wonder that any airport gets built that isn’t just a cinder-block hovel with benches and rendition-style interrogation rooms.

Even so, I think architects could do better. Should the real-world complications of the 21st century completely freeze our creativity? If the old architectural bromide “form follows function” still holds, why would that equation so often rule out attention to aesthetics, comfort, acoustics and light — essentially, the real-life sensory experience of a tired, overworked traveler?

Perhaps one day, Brian Eno will be stuck again in Cologne (or any other airport will do) and he’ll be inspired to create a new masterpiece. Instead of “Music for Airports,” he’ll sit down and compose music for “Sleeping in Airports.”

If architects and their patrons have forgotten about us, maybe Mr. Eno and other artists can somehow save us. Until then, you’ll find me sitting uncomfortably at the gate for my connecting flight, exhausted yet wide-awake, hoping against hope that I don’t get stuck with the middle seat.

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