A couple of recent trips to Germany (Munich and Stuttgart) made me think about airports and how they create very diverse experiences for travellers. Obviously, each airport is unique in its size, location and its spatial configuration. However, it struck me how conceptually different airports are.
How you experience an airport certainly depends on your own agenda and the purpose of your travel. On my recent trips I was on vacation with the whole family – me, hubby and two small children in tow. My needs and expectations are therefore different from a frequent business traveller. Obviously everyone goes through check-in, security and towards their departure gate. But whereas I require a chemist, a cheap and cheerful eatery, some space for the toddler to run around and a secluded spot to breastfeed the baby, in contrast the business traveller might need a space to plug a laptop, a decent cup of coffee and wifi.
Some recent twitter conversations highlighted some additional features that rendered airports pleasant (or not so pleasant):
— Mark Catchlove (@markcatchlove) October 2, 2013
@kerstinsailer Gatwick is also not fun! Dubai Airport is a shoppers dream (I like shopping) Moscow Airport is daunting, and too far out
— Mark Catchlove (@markcatchlove) October 2, 2013
LAX Terminal 4 is not my idea of a great workplace.
— Office Snapshots (@officesnapshots) September 25, 2013
@kerstinsailer there was just so much movement and noise going on I kept getting distracted
— Office Snapshots (@officesnapshots) September 26, 2013
So clearly, different people value different things. But let’s get back to the conceptual differences between airports to understand a bit more what type of building an airport is (and how it should be designed).
Airports are interesting buildings, since they unite two almost opposite purposes: on the one hand, airports are made to process travellers. People arrive at the airport (by varying means of transport) and need to be channeled through the building in a strict order and following a strong programme: from check-in and bag-drop to security and a fixed departure gate. On the other hand, very often people have time to spend at airports and would like to fill their hours at the airport with a variety of activities: eat and drink, do some shopping, browse and stroll, sit down and read, play, get some work done, have a nap. These types of activities can be described as ‘weak programme’ (the concept of strong and weak programmes is outlined in this academic paper by Hillier and Penn) – these activities don’t need to be controlled or orchestrated in time and space, they can happen almost anywhere anytime and as such depend on what the airport has to offer in terms of spatial design and configuration. Therefore the strong programme of processing travellers creates predefined movement flows, whereas the weak programme of spending time creates more random movement flows that follow the building structure. At times these two programmes might interfere with one another, for instance if accommodating the shopping interface stands in the way of an efficient processing of passengers from point A to point B.
Now, airports are conceptually different depending on how exactly the two programmes are combined and how much emphasis is put on each of them.
Let me give some examples from my own airport experiences:
- Atlanta airport is an almost pure traveller processing machinery. It’s a major transit hub, yet offers almost no shops, a limited choice of eateries and not many places to stay apart from the seats at the gates (hugely unpleasant if you ask me…).
- Stuttgart airport is mainly processing travellers – there are not many places to hang out, neither before nor after security.
- Munich airport offers a lot of shops and eateries, but some of the nicer ones are to be found after security (try and find a nice cafe where you could breastfeed a baby before the security check – almost impossible!!)
- London Heathrow feels like a shopping mall with an extended airport function and as such places a high emphasis on allowing people to hang out in style (this is especially the case for the new Terminal 5).
So to revisit the question what makes an airport pleasant, I would argue it is the intelligent combination of both programmes and allowing choice – the choice what to do and where to do it. People have different purposes on their travels and different needs and a well-designed airport building should take as many different activities into account as possible and cater for them well. I think we have to start thinking of buildings as truly multi-functional places allowing for a diversity of activities rather than understanding buildings as a fixed type with only one possible usage pattern.
I fondly remember napping in a lounging chair at Schipol airport in Amsterdam (interestingly rated among the top 4 for sleeping in airports); drinking a hot chocolate and relaxing in the living room like design of Schipol airport including a fake fireplace; letting my toddler climb an indoor playground at Heathrow Terminal 5; reading a book in a curved arrangement of seats at Frankfurt airport’s so called ‘Leisure Zone’ that creates a community feeling on the inside of the curved furniture and solitude on the outside; admiring the idea of the temporary IKEA lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris (although I never had the pleasure to see it in action); walking past the wonderfully flexible design of an ‘airport library’ in Schipol to allow people to read books which is also used as a setup for nomadic working.
It seems interesting features and nicely designed places at airports are becoming more popular – there’s a whole website dedicated to finding the most fun thing to do at airports around the world including sound showers, slides, etc.
So what are your favourite moments at airports? And which airports have you enjoyed spending time at? And what makes airports well-designed in your opinion?