Even though I know better, when I fly into an airport I look for signs that convey a sense of place. Is it too much to ask that Hartsfield Airport invokes Atlanta? Well, yet, it is too much to ask.
According to the brief history of airports offered by Witold Rybczynski, it never occurred to airport planners to invoke a sense of place. Instead, architects embarked on a seventy-year search for the appropriate metaphor for airports. The search led to some interesting dead ends, some spectacular, like Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal (the terminal as a metaphor for flight), others more prosaic, like Fentress Bradburn Architects’ Denver International Airport (the terminal as a metaphor for massive technological breakdown).
By the 1990s, architects abandoned the search for the perfect metaphor. Norman Foster led the way with his Stanstead Terminal, the first of the “elegant shed” terminals. Foster did away with all metaphors and citations of the past to create a terminal barely more pleasing than a quick pass through security. Elegant shed terminals are now everywhere, looking like they’re designed by slightly dreamy teams of engineers, much like airplanes themselves are.
Rybczynski reminds us that airports have a history, and that there’s a design logic deeper than simply creating an experience at once fiendish and boring.