In Suspense

by Andrew Wade

As I sit in suspense over the Atlantic, between London and New York, I am reminded of the importance of airports in contemporary cities. With global air traffic increasing the connectivity of cities and the rate of exchange of human capital, the airport becomes the gateway through which we enter a unique urban environment. It has become essential for cities to upgrade and modernise their airports to both handle increased volumes of traffic and project an appropriately modern and sophisticated image to passengers.

Heathrow Terminal 2 Proposal. Source: The Architects’ Journal

London Heathrow’s new Terminal 5 succeeded in doing just that, employing a big name in Richard Rogers Partnership to design a much needed expansion for the world’s busiest international airport. Airport design often allows a grand opportunity for an architect to make a statement — an idea which is explored in this series of photographs. The sheer size of modern passenger terminals provides the opportunity to play with structure and light at such scale as to create a very powerful experience.

Beijing Terminal 3. Source: Thewamphyri

The program for airport terminals is becoming so demanding and complex that we are experiencing a phenomenon of a select few architectural firms designing nearly all of the new terminals around the world. It is hard to come by a more clear and striking image of globalisation than seeing airports in Philadelphia, Abu Dhabi, and Tianjin all designed by the same company. It is nearly impossible to win a commission these days without a wealth of experience and an extensive portfolio in transport design, which reinforces the dominance of a few prominent designers.

Heathrow Terminal 5. Source: Terminal5insider

The sense of arrival granted by the contemporary airport is reflective of the modern global city — stressing technology, sensory overload, and a certain sanitised quality in a world of hyperspeed. With the connectivity of cities only set to increase, we are likely to see the modern airport reach ever larger scales, while our unavoidable desynchronosis only adds to the delirious effect.


  1. Airports certainly can be the entrance corridors of world cities, and it's good to give them some attention. I'm interested in learning of different ways that airports connect into the rest of the city. The two I use most often, Dulles and Charlottesville, have no rail line connection (Cville doesn't even have bus service!)

    Without robust connectivity to the city, the airports function less as gateways to the city and more as waystations in a placeless system. For, example who says they "visited Atlanta" (or wherever) if they only had a lay-over at the airport? Is the airport really the city at all, in that case?

  2. I like the sensory overload of airports. Everybody is going everyway. Everybody has a schedule that is all important at that moment. Everybody has a walk. Everybody has shoes to take off.

    Studio Sputnik likes airports and points to the possibilities of the urbanism of mass-culture in their very ambitious little book Snooze. Desynchronisity is an opportunity for snooze as design posture. We need to understand it better...I say. :)

  3. Or, what happens to these cavernous and ex-urban spaces in a future of declining oil availability? (You can't fly a plane on a battery) It would be a shame to waste all those beautiful roofs (where most of the architectural expression goes) to the scrap heap. Tear out the floors, maybe, and let the potted plants go wild. You could "stroll" though the shaded, reclaimed wilderness effortlessly on people movers or sunbathe on a runway, stretched out across a row of those ubiquitous leather Eames chairs.

  4. That's true, it doesn't really feel like you're in the place where the airport is located because you're surrounded by familiar duty-free shops, food options, carpeting, etc. The new Heathrow terminal definitely stands out. I'd like to see more airports go for that kind of impression, like many of the railway stations from the 19th and 20th centuries.

    Thinking about a time when airports are obsolete is interesting as well. Developing teleportation might be a good way of opening up airports for other uses. Is anyone working on this?