Airport architecture: flights of fancy

Airport architecture: flights of fancy
Chhatrapati Shivaji international airport, Terminal 2, Mumbai // architects: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

At a press conference earlier this year, listening to architect Luis Vidal talk about his design for Heathrow’s new £2.5bn Terminal 2, I heard the word “destination” and my nerves began to jangle. Vidal suggested that this was a new generation of airport, that this was a “gathering place”, a “piazza”, a place people would want to come to whether they were flying or not. He compared the amount of retail space with Covent Garden. By now my teeth were grinding and I wanted to scream: who the hell wants to spend any more time in an airport than they have to?

By the following day I’d calmed down. After all, I thought, airport architects face an invidious conundrum. They are designing a building type that, like a prison, no matter how luxuriously appointed, everyone wants to escape as soon as possible.

As long ago as the 1960s, the French cultural theorist Paul Virilio suggested that the airport concourse would replace the city square as the fundamental site of urban and international interchange. It hasn’t. Few meetings take place in airports. Instead people flying in for even a few hours make great efforts to get away from them – even if it entails hours in traffic or an anonymous airport hotel. People dislike being in airports. And the more they travel, the more they dislike them.