The pleasure of airports

We’ve had a good flight from London to Kuala Lumper, by which I mean we slept most of the way.

We noted as we made the journey that both the architectural spaces and structures of Terminal 5 at Heathrow and KLIA in Malaysia, are becoming diluted. The addition of retail spaces, not originally allowed for in the buildings’ designs, are now spill onto the concourses and seating areas for passengers. Previously, the walkways and lounges were navigable, but this relationship is changing. Windows provided the traveller with a connection to the outside world of the airport with views of manoeuvring aeroplanes and sunlight helping to mitigate the effects of jet lag. Distant horizons could be seen, whether through the grey haze of Hounslow or the bright tropics of Selangor, giving the passenger a real sense of place if only distantly as they traversed the airport’s circulation which was direct and clearly visible. Now however, windows and routes are obscured by new shops and outlets distracting passengers from their sole purpose – not to miss their flights.The shops are all invariably selling the same kind of things and all of no importance – perfume, sun glasses, leather bags, watches etc – at apparently bargain prices with the advertising everywhere in the terminals promoting further the uselessness of these products placed on photogenic models in exotic travel destinations. This bombardment does not cease even when seated in the aeroplane as the inflight magazine and accompanying shopping guide continues the sales assault to try and persuade you to depart without your cash.

We resisted any purchases but were reminded of ‘Learning from Las Vegas’ by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, where they catalogued the design of the desert’s casinos in their publication of 1972. They noted that casinos were labyrinthine in their layouts to prevent any ‘high rollers’ an easy exit. There were no clocks to mark the passage of time. Similarly, there were no windows to prevent the weary gambler seeing the light of a new day. Restaurants and rest rooms were placed at the back of gambling floors. Drinks for a player were free. Everything was designed and arranged to ensure the casino’s customers could not be distracted from the desired purpose: to gamble indefinitely and to lose their money.

It seems that despite the best efforts of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and Kisho Kurokawa in their respective airport terminals, the care and thought that has gone into their buildings is being destroyed by the need to create ever more cash generating retail space for the airport’s owners. It is as if the principals of designing for gambling in 1970’s Las Vegas are now being applied to the retail world of airport design in 2016. A recent trip via the refurbished Southern Terminal at London’s Gatwick Airport took the traveller via a circuitous retail route through a shopping mall with no windows or natural light, the signage actually directing the passengers incorrectly away from the departure gates to the shops instead of straight ahead. Airport travel is becoming ever reduced to the binary sales and purchases of the retail experience with the pleasures of seeing, hearing and perhaps smelling the aeroplanes and runways, a thing of the recent past. It’s as if the new purpose of airport design is for the passenger experience to become a retail one: to shop indefinitely and to ‘lose’ their flights.

3 thoughts on “The pleasure of airports

  1. Will, I love your insightful piece about created spaces and how use becomes challenged by retrofitted purposing. Experience tells me that footfall KPI drive some of the appetite for retro-fitting in university buildings and I wonder if this could be extended to airports? I attended a recent NLA event looking at the relationship between universities and their architecture in the London context. Last speaker of the morning was an engineer who discussed estimated energy usage and the mess between forecasts and actuals. Someone once shared with me that until they knew how people flowed in a new building, they didn’t site occasional seating. It has to be helpful and invitational rather than obtrusive and cluttering. Using the same approach to commercialisation of high traffic areas, it’s perhaps only after the internal patterns have been squared that retail plans are realised. Gatwick’s recent refit is a good example of how redesign exhausts. It’s a pity. Commercialised space antagonises architecture’s ability to soothe, reassure and relax. Much of the pleasure of long distance travel – evolving vistas and expectations – is negated by the phenomenon you’ve identified. Take care, pokerwidow1

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  2. Will, I love your insightful piece about created spaces and how use becomes challenged by retrofitted purposing. Experience tells me that footfall KPI drive some of the appetite for retro-fitting in university buildings and I wonder if this could be extended to airports? I attended a recent NLA event looking at the relationship between universities and their architecture in the London context. Last speaker of the morning was an engineer who discussed estimated energy usage and the mess between forecasts and actuals. Someone once shared with me that until they knew how people flowed in a new building, they didn’t site occasional seating. It has to be helpful and invitational rather than obtrusive and cluttering. Using the same approach to commercialisation of high traffic areas, it’s perhaps only after the internal patterns have been squared that retail plans are realised. Gatwick’s recent refit is a good example of how redesign exhausts. It’s a pity. Commercialised space antagonises architecture’s ability to soothe, reassure and relax. Much of the pleasure of long distance travel – evolving vistas and expectations – is negated by the phenomenon you’ve identified. Take care, Rachael

    Like

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