Sky Cities: Imagining the Airport of the Future as Destination

Denver International Airport
The roof of Denver's airport echoes the shape of Colorado's Rocky Mountains. Photograph: Ellen Jaskol; Sketch: Curtis Fentress; Architectural Drawing: Fentress Architects

"Every airport we design today is the airport of the future—for a while," says Curtis Fentress, the world-traveling 64-year-old architect. And he knows firsthand just how grand, and how fleeting, that distinction can be.

Fentress has designed airports that are widely recognized as some of the best in passenger surveys, including South Korea's Incheon International Airport, which opened in 2001 and was picked, once again this year, as the best in the world. He's also designed fabulous structures that were made infamous by failed technology, at least temporarily. (The automated baggage delivery in the Denver airport was an unmitigated disaster when it opened in 1995 and finally had to be scrapped.) One of Fentress's most ambitious and difficult projects, the remake of Los Angeles International Airport, is due to be completed a little less than a year from now. The reviews have yet to come in.

But Fentress's sketches and related writings—many of them to go on display this month at an exhibit called Now Boarding at the Denver Museum of Art—suggest just how the airport experience is going to change in "a while" for the 3 billion people a year who fly. Airports are becoming, in fact, the centerpieces of whole new urban environments.

Many of these "sky cities," as Fentress calls them, have been taking shape for years. Industrial parks, high-tech start-ups, hotels, malls, and housing developments have sprung up around airports originally built in expanses of largely empty land. One might think of Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia. At Incheon, which services Seoul and acts as a gateway to much of East Asia, the South Koreans have planned for more than just an airport city. They're developing what John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay have called an "aerotropolis" (they're the authors of a book of the same name) that will be home to some 500,000 people by the end of this decade.

The developments that may have the most profound impact on the experience of passengers, however, are likely to be inside the airports themselves, in the zone after the security checks, where all scissors have been confiscated, bottles tossed, and bodies scanned. These are the spaces the Transportation Safety Administration likes to call the "sterile areas." And with the advent of supersize aircraft like the Airbus A380, which can easily carry 500 passengers, more people are going to be waiting in these departure halls than ever before.

Some people actually enjoy the sense of limbo there, where travelers are "held between the nether space of depart and arrive," says social theorist and essayist Gillian Fuller, who coauthored a book called Aviopolis. They exist in "a time which exists as countdown," always looking for the announcement of departure or delay, but also able to experience "a peculiar joy" in this twilight zone. Other authors have called this "the space of flows." Travel writer Pico Iyer dubbed it "the flux," and Umberto Angeloni, an Italian clothing executive who spends hundreds of hours each year in airports, published a book-length essay dedicated to the "elation, heightened emotions, and inspiration" he found in that "parallel dimension."

What many airport designers are trying to do now, says Fentress, is to turn those sterile areas into "a real happening space." (In Dubai, a facility that Fentress did not design but greatly admires, there is an entire hotel in the sterile area.)

The first step in that direction came in the late 1970s, when marketing studies showed that travelers waiting for planes were two and a half times more likely to buy things in an airport than if they were in a regular mall. So malls moved into airports, and by the 1980s some sterile areas—Heathrow's British Air terminal and Dubai's airport, for instance—became shopping destinations. In turn, the mall experience in massive terminals began to influence mall architecture in other places. "The airport is a laboratory for all urban design," says Fuller.

But in most airports, the mall experience has grown tiresome. The stores and the food courts have a stale aroma of redundancy and no sense of place. A Starbucks is a Starbucks, a Hudson News is a Hudson News—and what city is this? And who cares? Fentress and other architects are increasingly interested in giving the sterile areas in their airports more local character. He holds up the example of the Seattle-Tacoma airport, which includes a fish market that will pack and ship the catch of the day for you, and other shops and entertainments that echo the city's style of life.

Meanwhile passage into "the flux" will grow easier as new technologies are developed for screening passengers. The International Air Transport Association is promoting what it calls the Checkpoint of the Future, meant to be more pervasive but less physically intrusive than the current system: hundreds of high-definition cameras would watch every move passengers make, checking them out for suspicious behavior; their hand baggage (and bodies) would be examined unobtrusively as they walked through a sort of screening tunnel; their identities would be verified by scanning their fingerprints or their eyeballs.

Those who move fastest and easiest will be passengers who've provided extensive personal information in advance to airport security services, much like the Global Entry program now run by U.S. immigration. (In an email exchange, Fuller points out that the ethos of the sterile zone already has spread far beyond the airport as governments and corporations collect a "data mix of travel habits, consumer spending, and paranoid identity profiling.") But occasional travelers aren't likely to go to the trouble of pre-screening, and many people will resist surrendering their privacy. So, theoretically, all this would allow passengers to get to their planes more seamlessly. But it's easy to imagine that those who've been prescreened and those who haven't will all wind up together, waiting for the slowest passengers, in the sterile zone.

"I think it is going to get more interesting in the future," says Fentress. Certainly at the new Los Angeles International Airport, which has gates for as many as nine A380s at a time, every effort is being made to offer passengers post-security diversions as they wait by the thousands to board double-decker planes, each connected to four separate jetways reached on two different floors of the airport. The central terminal of the new LAX has a 100-foot ceiling. There will be many high-end shops for luxury goods. There will be wine bars, tapas bars, sushi bars, the usual fast food, and probably some "white tablecloth" restaurants as well. Business-class and first-class lounges will be on the upper floors looking down on the shoppers strolling into the likes of Gucci, Hermès, and Louis Vuitton. Huge screens will offer entertainment interspersed with artwork, plus, of course, a little advertising for all those things you'll want to buy while waiting.

And, looking forward a few more years, as these post-security townships at the heart of one aerotropolis or another continue to develop, Fentress imagines new cultural connections. "Let's have dinner at the airport in Seattle," he suggests, "and catch a show at the airport in L.A."

Such are the airports of the future, for a while.