99% Invisible: Newly designed SFO terminal brings atmosphere to the airport
Chances are you took a trip somewhere through an airport this past summer, and recalling that travel experience might make you smile or cringe. Airports can be exciting places – especially for kids. Or they can be a drag when your flight is delayed, over and over again. But what if airports were … beautiful?
What if they had unlimited wifi and good food and luxury shops? SFO is headed in that direction with its new Terminal 2. Maybe soon, a 10-hour layover won’t feel like the end of the world.
Design of airports – that’s the topic of this installment of 99% Invisible, brought to you by Roman Mars.
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ACTRESS (reading from The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams): It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the expression "as pretty as an airport.” Airports are ugly. Some, very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be a result of a special effort. This ugliness arises because airports are full of people that are tired, cross, and have just discovered that their luggage has landed in Murmansk. Murmansk Airport is the exception of his otherwise infallible rule, and architects have, on the whole, tried to reflect this on their designs.
ALLISON ARIEFF: I think so many airports were not designed for the things they have to do right now. So it is all fixing as you go. There wasn't some great master plan.
ROMAN MARS: So when it comes to the ugliness and general dysfunction of airports, they're a little off the hook, but there's plenty of room for improvement.
When I spoke with Allison Arieff about the design of airports, she said to me, "If all airports simply played Brian Eno's album “Music for Airports” over the speaker, every airport would be better.”
ARIEFF: I write about design and sustainability for the New York Times.
Arieff is someone whose judgment is perfectly true.
ARIEFF: An architect I spoke to said nothing is more quickly obsolete than an airport building. The technology is changing so fast.
The thing that all airports are trying to change now, the thing that forced them to change the most, the fastest, was 9/11. Security screening has come to dominate all aspects of airport design.
We're going to focus on just two facts: the first is that because the unpredictability and time required to go through security, you no longer doddle on what is called the "landside" of the airport.
ARIEFF: Landside is basically the curb appeal part of the airport. Parking is still considered landside, taking area is still considered landside, the wonderful line you wait in, TSA. Those are also changing, by the way. Most airports, of course, have had to make room for those lines so all of those are landside.
So once you land yourself through the pleasant experience that is security, you are on the "airside.”
ARIEFF: The people responsible for building airports really followed the "bus station" model, where it was like a holding pen. "We just have you here as long as you need to get on the bus,” and the airports were on that model too, because of the assumption that you are just passing through.
Now the assumption is that you're absolutely not just passing through, the assumption is that you'll be staying – a while. So newer airports are designed with that in mind. A good example of this new thinking, described in a New York Times article by Arieff, is the new T2 terminal design at San Francisco International Airport.
ARIEFF: T2 is the new terminal for American Airlines and Virgin America at San Francisco International Airport. It's one of first terminals to be designed post-9/11.
The last terminal constructed before T2 at SFO was the international terminal that opened in December of 2000. It still feels pretty new, but you can tell right away that the trajectory of airport design was going in a very different direction in the year 2000 than what is prioritized today.
ARIEFF: San Francisco's all about the ticketing area. You walk in, and there's this massive amount of space.
It's open, airy, and actually pretty wonderful to experience. In the new world of TSA, all that building doesn't make any sense.
ARIEFF: If you actually sit and think about it, you realize that all the exciting stuff is on the landside. Your eating, your shopping, etc. – all of that happens before security. In the new T2, all the good stuff is saved for post-security. Because as we all know, most people are just rushing to their plane. They don't want to linger at all. So while there's a very generous, well-designed ticketing area, they've given way more footage – thousands and thousands more square feet to the airside, which is where the planes fly into the gate.
What's also different about T2 is that they're already incorporating the security procedures in the design from the get-go. When you look at security now, it often looks like the TSA just set up shop yesterday with retractable barriers, then it spits you out to a couple of folding chairs to put on your shoes and stow your laptop.
ARIEFF: The new T2 has actually what they call a "recompose zone" which is a lounge for putting your clothes back on after you get back from TSA with some sculptures, natural skylights. Once you're at that spot, putting on your shoes and belt and jewelry and whatever else back on, you can see everything you're about to enter into: retail, gates, seating, all that sort of stuff.
I'd never given much thought about shops in airports but the thing I need, not want – need – when I travel, is a place to plug in my phone or laptop, probably both.
ARIEFF: There are many, many more banks of outlets, because again, you think back to even pre-9/11, 10 years ago, the ubiquity of personal technology, there were walkmans. Now everyone has something at every age. Every sort of traveling segments, of course, older ports don't have enough
I was in O'Hare actually, sitting on the floor next to this businessman, and we were huddled like hobos around the single outlet in this three gate area. According to Arieff, few studies show that passengers want to stay within 250 feet of their gate. T2 at SFO addresses this anxiety. If you're buying a paper, grabbing a coffee, sitting down at the restaurant, all the gates are visible all the time because of the open floor plan.
ARIEFF: What I heard a lot in talking to many, many architects about airports is that, at the top of this list is letting people feel in control of their experience, and having a sense of where they're going. The design is in such a way so that all the anxiety associated with the process is alleviated. A good environment designer that can intuit where peoples' hang-ups are going to be is key for a successful project.
The noble goal is to alleviate all airport anxieties, no matter how experienced the traveler. But who knows – in 10 years that could be reviewing the story and contrasting T2 against some new super airport in some city that solves some of the usage that T2 failed to anticipate. For anything complex, perfect design is a moving target. But odds are your luggage will still be in Murmansk.
99% Invisible is produced by Roman Mars, with support from LUNAR. It’s a project of KALW, the American Institute of Architects, San Francisco and the Center for Architecture and Design. To hear more, go to 99percentinvisible.org.