Design Approach: A Look at the World’s Best Airports

We all have different motivations for traveling. For some, it presents an opportunity for growth and self-discovery; for others, it’s a chance to expand our horizons, to forge personal connections. Each of us also has our own methods of exploring a new city or destination. But there is one thing we all have in common. Many of our journeys begin and end the same way: at the airport. As a result, airports have evolved to provide travelers with unique and enriching experiences—the structure of their exteriors, the comfort of their terminals, and the quality of their amenities all contribute to our perceptions of the airport as a place. It’s essential, then, that an airport’s design not only takes our needs into consideration, but goes one step further to become a meaningful part of our expeditions.

photo by Egon Gade / Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects

"Moving through the airport becomes a museum-like experience."

Airports as cultural indicators

Airports are like miniature cities—they give us a glimpse of the local culture and people, offering a small taste of what we’ll discover once we step outside. They are also the last places we see before leaving a destination, so they have a great impact on how we will remember our journeys. Stantec understood this when designing Vancouver International Airport (YVR). Here, travelers have an opportunity to immerse themselves in local art, including several First Nations pieces. Moving through the airport becomes a museum-like experience as we wonder about the artist, what the pieces represent, and how they relate to contemporary British Columbia. But YVR is more than just a skillful embodiment of local culture. It also provides everything travelers need for a smooth departure and arrival: friendly and efficient staff, convenient pathways, and easy access to the city. With all of this in mind, it’s really no surprise that Skytrax has named YVR the Best Airport in North America for a record nine consecutive years.

photo by Normann Copenhagen

"Travelers in Terminal 2 can choose to sit in a lounge that best suits their current mood."

Airports as design hubs

It’s easy to create a stylish, aesthetically pleasing airport in a country that’s famed for its design. While strolling through Copenhagen Airport (CPH), one cannot help but notice that it serves to showcase the Danes’ top design talent. Award-winning firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects conceived the look of Pier C, an expanse of gates and lounges furnished with Fritz Hansen’s elegant Arne Jacobsen chairs. The terminal connector designed by Danielsen Architecture—nicknamed the cathedral—is a 300-meter long, 13-meter high building bathed in natural light. And finally, travelers in Terminal 2 can choose to sit in a lounge that best suits their current mood. Designed by Aviator Denmark and Normann Copenhagen, the “Atelier Relaxium” is divided into two distinct areas: one decorated in bright reds and yellows for those who feel social, and one in soothing blues and greens for those who prefer to work or rest.

photo by Normann Copenhagen

photo by Normann Copenhagen

"As we become more conscious...we expect cities—and the services we use to get there—to also embrace these new ideals."

Airports as sustainable benchmarks

From carbon footprints to plastic water bottles, there are several ways that air travel can negatively impact our environments. As we become more conscious, however, we expect cities—and the services we use to get there—to also embrace these new ideals. American firm Gensler took the topic of sustainability to heart when redesigning Terminal 2 in the San Francisco International Airport (SFO). The first LEED Gold-certified terminal in the U.S. is indeed an example for all others. Its ventilation system improves indoor air quality while using 20% less energy; hydration stations provide fresh water directly from California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range; informative signs placed throughout the terminal prompt travelers to question their relationship with the environment and encourage them to adopt more eco-conscious habits.

Though airports only represent a small part of our travels, as the start and end points of our journeys, they help define our experiences abroad. By offering something innovative, something contemporary, and something different from our daily lives, an airport can break free from its reputation as a temporary place and become a destination in its own right.

photo by San Francisco International Airport

photo by San Francisco International Airport

Written by Kamila Beyssembaeva