Airports were a novel development without precedent. Although similar to railway
stations, aircraft had quite different architectural requirements to passenger trains. This
did not deter designers in the early 20th century from using the styling of train stations
and train interiors in their designs for the new airport terminals and aircraft cabin
interiors. Much as the great railway stations encapsulated the engineering achievements
Entries A–F 57
of the 19th century, airport terminals were to become highly visible indicators of
technological advancement for nations and global cities in the 20th century.
The symbolism of airport terminals was present almost from the outset, but it has
undergone significant alteration over time, from the oversized modern designs of the
1930s; to expressive structures such as Eero Saarinen’s eaglelike TWA Terminal,
Idlewild, New York (1962); to the futurist high-tech terminals of the 1980s and 1990s. In
the mid-1960s, Paul Andréau’s centralized Terminal 1 at Charles de Gaulle International
Airport, Roisy-en-France (1974), demonstrates how air terminals had evolved into large
complex megastructures that were purely sys-tems to deal with enormous numbers of
travelers. The air terminal type embodied an inevitable romanticism about flight and
movement in contrast with the reality of scale and flexibility in an environment subject to
rapid unrelenting change.
Aircraft have changed enormously since that first flight at Kitty Hawk, North
Carolina, in 1903. The changes in commercial aircraft design over the 34 years that
separate the Douglas DC-3 (1935) from the Boeing 747–100 (1969) have been
staggering; airports raced to keep up with the new aircraft and airline needs. The much
increased seating capacities, safety, reliability, speed and range of aircraft lowered costs
and increased the popularity of air travel, which encouraged ever greater numbers to fly;
in turn, airport terminals around the globe were confronted by new pressures to expand
facilities. The one constant factor in airport terminal design was change—swift,
unrelenting, and unpredictable. Airport terminal design is a contest between the rival
claims of centralization and dispersal, between providing minimum passenger walking
distances on the landside and dispersal on the airside to take advantage of the
maneuverability of airplanes.
The challenge of mass air travel in the 1990s led to the building of extremely large
terminals to handle upward of 35 million passengers per year in an unprecedented
expansion of airports around the world that culminated in a stunning new architectural
synthesis. This new generation of terminals were hugely complex, giant high-tech steel
sheds that responded to the demands of extreme efficiency and a renewed emphasis on
architectural expression. Indeed, it is hardly an original observation to say that much as
train stations were the great popular monuments to 19th century industrialism, in the 20th
century, these extraordinary airport terminals similarly express the pinnacle of 20th
century achievement in architecture and construction.
The new terminals are almost cities unto themselves, albeit rampant metropolitan
fragments, populated by hoards of transient nomads. The introduction of lightweight tent
and tensile forms in Saarinen’s elegant terminal at Dulles International Airport,
Washington, D.C. (1962), and later in the new Haj Terminal, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
(1978), and at Denver, Colorado (1995), and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (1998),
international terminals reinforced this incipient nomadic connection.
Whether the strategy of building ever-larger terminals proves effective and they are
the forerunners of even larger terminals in the future, or whether other factors—air traffic
density, weariness of the traveling public—intervene to limit size, time alone will tell.
The great size and cost of the new terminals may yet prove to be their undoing. Of all the
new building types to emerge in the 20th century, and notwithstanding the skyscraper,
these new terminals speak more vividly and eloquently than any other mass movement by
peoples across the globe. Starkly contrasting with the tragic events of the 20th century,
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 58
the horizontal steel-and-glass terminal is a cathedral whose standardized open space,
immersed in light, encapsulates mankind’s dream of freedom.
The earliest airline routes—both national and international—began across Europe in
spring 1919. The first generation of airfields was primitive, little more than grassy
fields—unobstructed flat surfaces used for recreational purposes at the weekend or for
military training and parades. The Dugny-Le Bourget (Paris) and Croydon (London)
airports, which opened in 1920, signaled the arrival of second-generation airports having
purpose-built terminals, the beginning of the concept of the modern air terminal complex.
The second-generation terminal, unlike the earlier primitive landing fields, comprised a
multifunctional building that was normally separated from the hangars and workshops
but that usually incorporated the control tower. Except for this control tower, the building
had a low profile to avoid obstructing flight passes, and the roofs were designed on the
airfield side as flat platforms for use by the public at air shows.
Terminals often resembled grandstands with tiered viewing terraces for the public to
watch air shows. More monumental than necessary, in Europe, architectural
overstatement was usually a product of local ambition or national pride. The air terminal
and modern architecture thus emerged concurrently. Terminal architecture was frequently
uncompromisingly modern, with examples such as the Schipol International Terminal
(1928) by Dirk Roosenberg serving as models. Schipol had an L-shaped layout, with a
tall control tower as a central feature and roof terraces for visitor viewing. The
importance of the tower was typical: At Lyon’s V-shaped terminal by Antonin Chomel
and Pierre Veriere (1930), the control tower is on the corner and advances toward the
field, and at Birmingham (1939), by Graham Dawbarn and Nigel Norman, the tower
sprouts sheltering wings on either side.
Gatwick terminal (1936), designed by Hoar Marlow and Lovett, was circular, with the
control tower mounted on top in the center. It had rail-mounted telescopic passageways
connected to the gates of the beehive to protect passengers from the weather and from
propellers. Gatwick was the first airport with a railway connection, and it initiated the
satellite concept for airport terminals. Significantly, Gatwick’s canvas passageways
connecting to aircraft are precursors of modern telescopic passenger-loading bridges or
The postwar terminals coincided with the engineering and machine aesthetic of
modern architecture as expressed succinctly by Le Corbusier in Vers une architecture (1923), in which he
dedicated an entire chapter to airport architecture. Aircraft fascinated other architects as
well. Erich Mendelson sketched a hangar with workshops for airships and airplanes in
1914, and Peter Behrens designed an airplane factory at Henningsdorf near Berlin (1915)
for AEG. In the 1926 film Metropolis , a rooftop airport was included on top of a tower, and in 1932
Andre Lurcat suggested building airports in the River Seine, Paris. Manmade islands to
service transatlantic airplanes were proposed, an idea that, 70 years on, was realized in
the futuristic artificial island airports of Kansai (1994, Osaka Bay) and Chek Lap Kok
(1997, Hong Kong).

Stansted Airport exterior, Essex, England, designed by Norman Foster
and Partners (1981–91)
In the United States air services were started by the Post Office, which developed and
operated an airmail service from 1918 to 1925. After the passage of the contract Air Mail
Act of 1925, many private entrepreneurs and companies entered commercial aviation.
The history of American air transport policy contrasts with that of Europe, where the
responsibility for forming airlines, building navigation aids, and constructing airports
nearly always rested in the hands of each country’s central government. In America
airport designers generally simulated ideas from the architects and engineers of railway
terminals, combining the best of railroad station design with important airport elements
that became common features in later decades. On occasion, a regional style was chosen
for terminals, such as in San Francisco (1937) and Albuquerque (1939).
After 1927 increases in flight movements and passenger capacities and the weight of
commercial aircraft placed new demands on concepts for the buildings and for the entire
airfield and caused the third generation of airport construction. Expensive take-off and
landing strips with paved surfaces, standard at all airports in the United States since 1928,
now became mandatory in Europe. Usually, four or more strips were planned to respond
to varying wind directions. The airport at Bromma near Stockholm became the first to be
so equipped. Doubts now arose about the common practice of building on the periphery,
and in 1929, the French proposed the idea of a wedge-shaped building zone projecting
forward from the edge of the airport into the center of the airfield, leaving more than 80
percent of the edge undeveloped.
The introduction of flying boats in the 1930s led to the construction of amphibian
airports on coasts, such as the International Air Terminal and Dinner Key Seaplane Base
at Miami (1934) and Marine Air Terminal, LaGuardia Airport (1939), where one could
transfer to a land airplane. The 1930s saw some striking terminal buildings erected, such
as Ramsgate Municipal Airport (1937) by David Pleydell-Bouverie in Great Britain.
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 60
Resulting from the tremendous advances in aviation made during World War II and
the introduction of new types of commercial aircraft carrying 80 to 100 passengers,
existing arrival and departure halls were rendered inadequate. Airport construction and
modernization was delayed in the immediate postwar period and only got going properly
in Europe in the 1950s. The frontal system or transporter configuration of terminal design
dominated: Aircraft stood out on aprons, separate from the terminals, and passengers had
to walk out across the tarmac to the planes. The Zurich International Airport (1953) by
Alfred and Heinrich Oeschger is typical of this fourth generation of airports. Other
examples are Heathrow (1956, London) and Orly (1961, Paris), which had a terminal
located at the center with two fingers on either side, stretching 2,300 feet from end to
Finger- and star-shaped terminals arrived in the 1950s in the United States and soon
afterward in Europe. The terminal at London’s Gatwick Airport in 1958, a rectangular
building with a single finger, was the first example of a fifth-generation airport, with two
more added in 1964; Rome, Milan, Copenhagen, London, and Amsterdam soon adopted
the system. Toronto airport (1961) in North America and Geneva’s Cointrin airport
(1968) and the Cologne-Bonn airport (1970) in Europe are leading examples of satellite
terminal design.
The basic assumption inherent in fifth-generation airports—minimum distances
between landside and airside—came under great pressure in the 1970s when international
terrorism surfaced. Since then, airports have been subject to strict safety regulations.
The main feature of the next, sixth, generation of airports, dealt with the terrorist threat
by applying the bottleneck principle, with the arrival and departure halls once again
centrally located (often on separate floors), in combination with a strict division between
the “secure” area and the “open” area. As a consequence, well-designed terminals assure
a discreet transition from public area to a zone of differentiated security, thereby avoiding
any feeling of restricted freedom.
The 1990s brought a climax in terminal design with the creation of some 40 major
new terminals around the globe, replacing older obsolete facilities for cities as far apart as
Osaka, Hong Kong, Bilbao, London, Paris, Inchon, Barcelona, Seville, and Shanghai.
Although they are very varied architecturally, they share many common features; namely,
great size, openness, lightweight construction, high-tech detail of structure and services,
and a new lyrical freedom. The new high-tech megaterminals frequently combine
extensive areas of retail, hotel and conference facilities, bars, and movie theaters. At a
minimum, the 1990s terminals are the products of a 40-year evolution and, hence, bring
together many existing trends in a striking new synthesis. Constructional ingenuity and
bravado, large, curved, roofs, the application and celebration of advanced technology—
all this and more has been applied obsessively to every facet of terminal performance.
Although the dominant high-tech expression was not confined to air terminal design,
there is an immediate appropriateness about its use. Sir Norman Foster and Partners, Sir
Richard Rogers, and Renzo Piano, as well as a host of other designers and followers,
were inspired by 19th-century English industrial buildings, and more critically, by Sir
Joseph Paxton’s 1851 Crystal Palace.
Foster and Partner’s Stansted Airport in Essex, England (1991), is such an example.
Stansted is a single-level building that incorporated an evenly spaced grid of columns that
is clearly and intentionally reminiscent of Mies van der Rohe’s steel-andglass pavilion
Entries A–F 61
concept. Its plan was for an elegant and directionless neutral terminal with a detached
satellite in a flat English landscape, a step farther on from his previous Sainsbury Center
for the Visual Arts at Norwich (1978), which resembles an aircraft hangar.
The new airport at Kansai, which was designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop
and that opened in 1994, displays with great authority the characteristic features of
contemporary airport architecture such as scale (it has a 1.7-km-long departure lounge),
planning complexity, engineering prowess, and technological splendor. Kansai was the
first airport of its size (it was designed to handle 25 million passengers a year) to be
developed entirely on a man-made island. The architect anticipated later terminal designs
by exploiting open, curvaceous roofs that are ecologically sound and by using natural
light to mark the passenger routes through the terminal. It is a multinodal transportation
center as much as an airport.
Hong Kong’s new Chek Lap Kok (1997) terminal, also by Foster and Partners,
planned for 35 million passengers per year and extended the architectural language of
Stansted. The roof has a 36-meter structural grid and appears from above as a cutout
silhouette of a plane. On three main levels between two parallel runways, Chek Lap Kok
also has train and expressway links to Hong Kong.
The 1990s generation of megaterminals, although they make the most of available
technological resources, push beyond mere technological expression: They seek to
become more “natural” and less artificial as they acquire an outdoors-indoors character,
making the most of natural light and ventilation. This trend may be the result of
technology fatigue, the onset of boredom with technology in isolation, and an
acknowledgment that people require a deeper, more meaningful, relationship with natural
things for harmony and balance. It is not surprising to find terminal designers using
words such as “calm and visual clarity” to express their aims.

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