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November 16, 2000

The new airport has arrived

  • It’s a friendly, familiar place.
  • By TED McCAGG,

    NBBJ’s design for SeaTac’s South Terminal expansion project will establish this airport as the new international gateway to Seattle.

    South Terminal
    Courtesy of NBBJ
    View of South Terminal expansion at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

    It is also designed as a destination in its own right and a civic gathering place. With native art and design, the use of natural materials and panoramic regional scenes, the South Terminal will give travelers a welcoming sense of having arrived in the Pacific Northwest. It will operate as a 24-hour town center with community activities, shopping and entertainment.

    The grand, oval-shaped South Hall will become the airport’s new “living room.” Emphasizing daylighting and dramatic views, the design features a 70-foot-tall curtain wall system oriented toward Mount Rainier. This space is the focal point for arriving passengers and those waiting to pick them up, and draws attention to the surrounding grandeur of the great outdoors. Conveniently linked to the ground transportation location, it is within sight of the area’s activities and lets travelers watch for their shuttles, taxis, limos or tour buses in comfort.

    The redesigned South Terminal will be a primary example of a trend in airport design. Airports are becoming friendlier places, better able to accommodate crowds as well as the needs and desires of individual travelers.

    In addition to the South Terminal expansion project, NBBJ’s current airport projects include the seven-gate Terminal B consolidation project for US Airways at Boston’s Logan Airport, the US Airways renovation at LaGuardia Airport, the phased expansion of the Calgary International Airport Terminal, the master plan for Albuquerque International Airport, and the recently completed master plan for Port Columbus International Airport.

    Airports are transition points in a traveler’s trip by plane. They serve as destination links that start, continue and close journeys. On a broader scale, these airports play a significant social and economic role by providing a connection between communities throughout the world. No other transportation mode surpasses the airplane in its ability to swiftly deliver passengers and cargo virtually anywhere on the planet.

    Even as advancements in technology have minimized the need for passengers to spend time in airports, tightened security measures have increased the time spent in these transit hubs. Concurrently, societal evolution has upgraded the thought of an amenity from luxury to expectation.

    These days, people expect more out of everything. Airports are no exception. And with more international travel, it is logical for travelers to desire the same amenities found in Hong Kong or Los Angeles to be present in every airport they visit. This can be to the airport’s advantage or detriment depending on how we respond.

    Technological advancements have created a mind-set in people that almost anything can be made available at any time, and in any place. This high expectation of comfort and convenience has spurred industry growth and led to the rethinking of airport design.

    Though international commonality is essential from an operational standpoint, it is equally important for airports to retain a welcoming sense of individuality by calling reference to their communities of origin. Successful airport design will create a functional and technologically advanced transport facility that is made uncommon by incorporating visual images and physical elements suggestive of the region it serves.

    Technological advancements have also made it now more important than ever to maintain a personal “sense of place.” The Earth has become smaller because of the incredible growth in the telecommunications and computer industries. Yet, as human beings, we want to preserve our individualism and cultural identity. To satisfy this need, we must create environments that express a “sense of place.” An airport, designed as an expression of the essence of the region or place, is not only a remarkable transport facility but also a valuable civic asset.

    Just by the nature of their purpose, airports are stressful environments. Twenty-four hours a day, thousands of passengers race to make flights, stand in lines, pass through security obstacles, shuttle from one terminal to the next, and wait for their luggage—all in an attempt to get somewhere else. In other words, passengers are forced to spend time at the airport. The environment in which they spend time, and the activities and amenities offered to them, can contribute to their sense of security, well-being and enjoyment. Therefore it makes sense to design a facility that will help boost travelers’ morale and reduce their anxiety and stress by providing a variety of relaxation options.

    To achieve this, architects must forget the traditional notion of airports filled with marginally comfortable waiting areas, overpriced gifts shops and concession areas, and think about what services make people happy and at ease. In this mind-set, a user-friendly hub not only meets the required functional rigors, but also expands hospitality services to include reasonably priced retail stores with national and regional recognition, diverse restaurants, and entertainment centers. This is one step toward meeting or indeed exceeding the passengers’ expectations, reducing their stress and, not to be ignored, improving the airports’ revenues.

    But the design team must remember that passengers visit airports for one primary reason—to catch a plane. While the airport of the future may become a destination or community multiuse asset, its primary function must continue.

    Airports need to be functional, user-friendly, operationally efficient, cost-effective facilities that also provide a variety of attractive amenities in a unique, regionally inspired environment. Success is achieved when the design creates an environment not where people have to wait to catch a plane, but an environment where people want to wait and catch a plane.

    Ted McCagg, Jim Suehiro and Gordon Phillips are architects who have spent the major portion of their careers devoted to airport design.  They are integral to NBBJ’s national airport design practice, anticipating evolutions in transportation and focusing on transforming airport architecture to create meaningful experiences for people.

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