Elegant Sheds


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.



1 Comment

  1. This is an excellent blog, which i am glad i found. This was a partiular interesting note on the ideological substanceof airport, i thank you. In a way, we could add them (the airports) into the category that Foucault called the heterotopias, those new spaces that have grown within our fascination with the spaces that have proliferated since the beginning of modernity. There is, nevertheless, as you correctly pointed out, an aesthetic dimesion to it, both at the symbolic and semantic levels.
    A short anecdote:
    A friend, not long ago, sent me a picture of the Havana airport’s exit door, which read: “Exit” (in englih), while in spanish it said: “Empuje para escapar”, which could fairly be translated as “Push to scape”. Was it meant as a ironic-political comment for those people who leave the island?I also think that the airport space is also the phantamgorical space. A place of the uncanny.
    Anyways, thanks for motivating these thoughts,


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