It is a wonder we fly at all. What with all the security measures now in place, metal detectors and other type of screening devices, the long lines at counters, surly airline agents and flight attendants who are more worried about their disappearing pension plans than your comfort, no locks on your bags and theft being up…Why do we do it?
We love adventure; it is a status symbol; because my company makes me do it; Daisy’s wedding and Aunt Bertha’s funeral; the job interview that may put me on the road to success…and the list goes on.
You would think that airport design should facilitate travel, that architects would help put color on our white knuckles, delight our senses while we wait in line, amuse us while we listen to the monotone orders of the security personnel. Think again.
Who designs airports? Some are designed by iconic architects. Such is the case of Dulles airport in northern Virginia, and the TWA terminal at Kennedy International in New York, both designed by Eero Saarinen. In both instances the aesthetic appeal is undeniable as seen through these amateur eyes. In the case of the older TWA terminal, it literally seems to be ready for take off, even if it is concrete. At Dulles, concrete and glass achieve an imposing play of convexity and concavity. Yet for all the futuristic splendor both structures displayed, they don’t work for the ordinary passenger – you and me.
So, should architects be soothsayers? Not exactly, but perhaps just practical enough to make their creations work for at least a few decades. Isn’t it a normal assumption in the case of buildings, that they will survive their creator? Dulles was never an easy airport to travel from and today the original building is no more than a fancy reception lobby which leads to all the ill-functioning services there provided, from remote departure gates still serviced by the awkwardly inefficient and slow “growing and shrinking buses” down to the shameful, autocratic monopoly that provides “public transportation” to and from the spot.
I really didn’t even want to mention Kennedy, except to say that Saarinen’s beautiful design is all that is left of its promise of future expedience. I have often wondered if I would have ever made it out of that airport, if not for my knowledge of “New Yorkese.” Foreign travelers are most definitely not welcome in it and, “T’ain’t my job” is the only answer some of them get.
Let’s leave Saarinen airports and go to any other large international American airport. Are you happy with any? Happy may be too ambitious a word. How about a newer airport, Denver for instance? Did they ever settle all the lawsuits and corruption scandals? Kind of nice looking, but really those corridors are still too long to walk and the luggage problems though corrected still leave much to be desired. The design was taken over from a purported “Perez Architects” by “Fentress, Bradburn Architects” (maybe the luggage system was the previous groups’ design). The list goes on…
So does any airport work? I think I found one that makes traveling a less frightening and stressful experience. My pick, Orlando or MCO (in airline speak). Do I hear some snickers? Well, it works. Listen, it was built by human beings and all the dreaded steps we must go through are still present, but somehow more manageably.
To begin with, wherever you approach it from the signs are clear. What sides of the main building to park in, return your car or be dropped off at are posted well in advance according to the airline you are flying. Then, the building is clean and aesthetically pleasing. Each stage of the airport experience or checkpoint is clearly established and separate from the following. Yes there are lines, but the employees and attendants seem more amenable than elsewhere, perhaps Disney screens them all. Even leaky ceilings, left by “Charley” as souvenirs, didn’t dampen some of the security personnel smiles, but instead prompted calls for: “Another bucket” and “Sorry ma’am, we are still not in full swing yet.” So, yes, we can forgive some of the Mickey Mouse décor and really, it isn’t as kitschy as you’d imagine. The trains transporting you to and from gates are attractive and fast. Tunnel-like hallways are never too long and the longer ones are well equipped with moving walkways. There are stores and restaurants at every new phase of the obligatory experience. I’d sum up the reason for its functional success as knowing where to break down the steps of the process into bite-size chunks, rather than always giving you a break before the next long line or invasion of privacy. This has been achieved mostly through architecture. The structure itself breaks up the ordeal into manageable portions and each new space you enter is a pleasant and non-alienating environment. This is one instance where perhaps using different design firms for different aspects of such a large project, is a better idea than one great architect. Such was and continues to be, the case in Orlando.
Hey, I like futuristic hallways with neon colored lights, just don’t make me feel as though I’ll never come out of them!
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