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First Impressions: Airports Reflecting Place


Placemaking is the design trend du jour for airports. But what does creating a sense of place at airports really mean?

When Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport opened in 1983, its blend of strikingly modern and traditional Islamic architecture communicated to passengers exactly where they were. Travelers experiencing the airport’s monumental terminals and majestic mosque felt the importance of entering the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. With a design inspired by the area’s rich history, culture and desert environment, this iconic airport became part of Riyadh’s fabric. At that time, however, an airport design that helped define a city was more an exception than the rule.

Celebrating Place

Placemaking is an age-old goal for architects, who know that people respond at an almost primal level to feeling physically and socially connected to their surroundings. For decades, though, the world’s airports looked and felt alike. Recently, particularly in Europe and the USA, there has been a shift away from this ‘McDonaldization’ of terminals. To create the ideal experience and increase revenue, many airports are directing architects to create environments that celebrate their place in the world.

Creating Versus Reflecting

For the new Passenger Terminal Complex at Hamad International Airport in Doha, and a terminal being designed at Astana International Airport in Kazakhstan, the architecture helps define a visual identity for these cities. But a more common approach to placemaking is to design a terminal that showcases a city’s essence.


At Indianapolis International Airport, the hyperbolic roof and gently curving concourse wings belie the strong sense of place experienced inside the Colonel H Weir Cook Terminal. The nexus of activity is the aptly named Civic Plaza, a grand concourse space that measures 200ft in diameter, with 35ft ceilings, glass walls and views of the Indiana landscape. Retail, social, art and community functions converge in Civic Plaza, which becomes an extension of the city. Travelers may encounter installations by local artists, a jazz trio supporting the Indy Jazz Fest, race cars promoting the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or an Indy Chamber of Commerce event.

Based on customer satisfaction scores, the ACI has named the airport the best in North America for the past four years. “One primary goal of the Indianapolis Airport midfield project was to create an airport with a genuine sense of place for Indianapolis,” says John Kish, former Indianapolis Airport Authority executive director. “HOK delivered on this promise, and our airport is consistently recognized as having among the best terminals in North America.”


A recent modernization of the passenger concourse at Long Beach Airport creates a distinctly Southern Californian experience that takes advantage of the mild climate. Passengers can enjoy an open-air meet-and-greet plaza and a post-security outdoor courtyard complete with palm trees and wooden boardwalks.

The design of Salt Lake City International Airport’s new passenger terminal, scheduled to open in 2020, celebrates Utah’s natural beauty and reputation as an outdoor recreation hub. The airport is nestled between the Wasatch and Oquirrh mountain ranges and the Great Salt Lake. Its exterior and interior colors are inspired by this stunning landscape, and the terminal features expansive windows with views to the airfield and mountains.

“Through our public outreach efforts, we learned that local passengers want us to bring the natural beauty of our state into the new airport,” says Maureen Riley, executive director of the Salt Lake City Department of Airports. “With the help of HOK we will offer a greater sense of place, to provide a reflection of Utah, its spectacular surroundings and its community.”

Beyond Architecture at Heathrow

In preparation for the 2014 opening of Terminal 2, The Queen’s Terminal, Heathrow Airport commissioned a branding study to reinforce its position as the gateway to Britain. The report, which was incorporated into Heathrow’s campus design guidelines, does not directly involve the architecture or define solutions. Instead, it studies the human psychology of what makes a place and identifies ways to communicate ‘Britain at its best’ at key points in the passenger journey. Interrelated brand levers such as art, materials, lighting, retail and food outlets, media, graphics and even staff appearances are presented as opportunities for Heathrow to create a powerful sense of Britishness throughout its terminals.

“Heathrow is determined to deliver a positive, passenger-centric experience and this project helped us understand how to best respond to people’s subconscious need for airports to display a strong, unique identity,” says Barry Weekes, Heathrow’s head of design, and leader of the study.

The Best Approach for Each Place

Feeling connected to a place is an essential part of the travel experience. People don’t want to step off a plane in Beijing and feel as if they have arrived in New York. In some cases, as with the live country music playing in Nashville International Airport or the local artwork at Indira Gandhi International Airport’s Terminal 3 in New Delhi, this experience of place may be straightforward. In others, as with LaGuardia Airport’s new Terminal B, designed to reflect the sophistication of New York City, features that evoke the spirit of a place may be subtle.


There is no placemaking checklist or magic formula for determining the best approach for each airport. Designers should explore the needs and location of each airport. When team members ask smart questions and study the right inputs, they can make design decisions that lead to the creation of a terminal that can only belong in one place.

This article originally appeared in the Passenger Terminal World 2016 Showcase.


Robert Chicas is a director of Aviation + Transportation at HOK.