High-flying design

High-flying design

“It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression, 'As pretty as an airport’.”

Now I like the work of the late-author Douglas Adams, I do, but on that grumble from ‘The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul’ we’re going to have to disagree. As affordable airfares take tourists into the farthest corners of the earth at the swipe of a credit card, the world of global travel has become more refined than ever. Whether it’s for work or pleasure we’re travelling more than ever before, and all levels of the travel industry have begun to embrace the opportunities great design can offer in redefining our experience. 

On the other hand though, perhaps Adams was right. Anyone who’s flown through the concrete hell-hole that is Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, or Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport – regularly dubbed the world’s worst – would agree that an airport is sometimes more like the next level of Dante’s Inferno than a destination to be savoured. 

Thankfully airports such as these are the exception rather than the rule, and sleek stylish air terminals have increasingly become a key element of the journey itself. For while most airports are purely functional, little more than a collection of impersonal runways and terminals, a handful of cities destinations have realised that an airport is, or can be, a dramatic 21st-century art form. They’re a statement of intent of the city’s place in the world, a greeting to visitors that says, ‘This. This is who we are’.

“Everything we design is a response to the specific climate and culture of a particular place,” explained acclaimed architect Norman Foster, who dreamed up the remarkable Terminal 1 building at Chek Lap Kok, better known as Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA). 

It opened in 1998, just a year after Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule, and stands astride the South China Sea as the gateway to a new and vibrant Hong Kong. Like the city, it’s modern, striking and terribly efficient. And yet in dark corners you’ll find authentic dim sum emerging from steam-filled kitchens, and lines of roast geese hanging by their necks in a restaurant window. Like many airports it is defined by soaring steel girders, glass roofs and views out onto the apron, but anonymous it is not.

Terminal 3 at Changi International Airport in Singapore is another good example of great design emulating a destination. While the airport is as clean, efficient and modern as Singapore itself, there’s a sense of Asian playfulness infused throughout the building. 

Once you’ve dispensed with the formalities of check-in and immigration you’ll be sorry you don’t have more hours to while away in the butterfly garden, indoor playground or dedicated movie theatre. The four-storey spiral slide and six-metre indoor waterfall? Well, that’s just because they could. 

But there’s a fine line between eye-catching design and distraction from the job at hand. Design can fall flat if function doesn’t align with form. Anyone who has walked the endless maze-like passageways of Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport would agree that what looks good on paper doesn’t always suit tired travellers. 

“[Design is] not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works,” suggested Steve Jobs, a man who knew a thing or two about making beautiful objects intuitive to use.

In an Asian mega-city about to welcome the world for the 2008 Summer Olympics, that sense of intuitive design informed much of the thought process behind Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital International Airport, another Foster + Partners project. 

One of the largest buildings in the world, covering a staggering 1 300 000m², it was designed to evoke traditional Chinese colours and symbols, its aerodynamic roof emulating the shape of a dragon. 

Designed to accommodate 50 million passengers by 2020, the most striking element of the airport is its next-generation roof. A complex mesh that colour-codes different zones of the airport, its purpose is two-fold: to make navigating through the enormous space easier, and to heighten the drama of arrival in this gateway to China.

Asian airports may lead the way when it comes to applying great design to our travel experiences, but they don’t have a monopoly on blending form and function. 

Madrid’s Barajas Terminal 4, designed by ‘starchitect’ Richard Rogers, may be a gargantuan space that easily overwhelms those weary of leg, but integrates a number of subtle design cues. Colour-coded signs and multi-level walkways make the journey simpler and less crowded, while an eye-catching roof of undulating ribs escapes the traditional model of a grey steel box. It has won the Stirling Prize for architecture, and The New Yorker’s architecture critic Paul Goldberger called it “more breathtakingly beautiful than any airport I have ever seen”. Take that Douglas Adams.

With deep government pockets to tap for star architects, airports are the most striking example of great design in the world of travel, but a handful of cities apply the same principles to the humble task of commuting below ground.

The Moscow Metro system has long been famous for its grandiose subway stations strung out along the 290-kilometres of track. Mayakovskaya And Park Pobedy Stations are memorable, but it’s the marble pillars and mosaics in Kievskaya Station most likely to grace your Instagram feed. Built in the ‘50s at the height of a taste for so-called ‘Stalin Baroque’, it’s been said it exudes the opulence of giant powder room, not a metro station.

Since the 1950s Stockholm has similarly transformed many of its stations into a vast public art gallery, while a handful of eye-catching installations on the Paris Metro are the saving grace of the often crowded system. The surreal Arts et Métiers station, designed to resemble a Jules Verne-inspired submarine, is worth seeking out.

But these stations are often art dressed up as design, doing more to ease the eyes than aid your journey. Not so the Metro Bilbao, another masterpiece from Foster + Partners. 

Using light and space to guide commuters, “the routes flow like walking through a sculpture of caves, which guide you to the caverns of the stations themselves,” explained Foster. Particularly eye-catching are the glass canopies that have become affectionately known as Fosteritos: by day they funnel natural light into subterranean stations, while at night they become beacons drawing travellers down into the Metro.

Dubai’s striking Metro system is another glimpse at a brave new world of transport. Spotless, fast and efficient, this hyper-modern driverless system links the airport to stations across the city. Separate carriages for women and children are offered, along with fast Wi-Fi throughout the network. It’s a system with a sense of place too: Al Jafiliya station is infused with Arabian architectural nuances, while the modern design of the Mall of Emirates station speaks to the aspirations of this ever-changing city.

But travel is about more than the simple act of transiting from A to B. Airports, hotels and airlines are increasingly embracing the notion that the very act of travel is to be savoured. 

Airport hotels in particular have embraced the notion that a transit stay needn’t be a chore. Sofitel London Heathrow offers expansive views of the airfield, while the Crowne Plaza Hotel Changi Airport has the feel of a resort hotel with its tropical gardens and expansive pools. 

Transiting through the airport has also taken a luxe step forward. Along with pioneering ever-greater comforts at 35 000 feet, major global carriers are offering previously unthinkable levels of luxuries in their airport lounges.

Cathay Pacific’s six lounges at Chek Lap Kok have long set the standard for premium-class luxury, with The Bridge the latest offering for travellers seated up at the sharp end. The feel here is of an upmarket living room, albeit that of a rather wealthy Asian friend. Plenty of wood tones and natural light soften the airport feel, while an array of dining experiences will make you more than happy to miss your flight. 

Perhaps only one other lounge offering has impressed me more, and that’s British Airways’ The Concorde Room at Heathrow’s terminal 5. Only a First Class boarding pass will get you through the door here, and once you’re in you certainly won’t want to leave. Inspired by the intimate luxury of a small boutique hotel, a fine-dining area offers private booths and waiter service. In the lounge, an enviable list of wines and malt whiskies will tempt you to leave work for another day. And, if your First Class flight left you a little weary, there are private cabanas with day beds and en-suite facilities.

In Doha, Qatar Airways is throwing its hat into the bigger-is-better ring too: its new flagship lounge at Hamad International Airport covers 10 000m2, and boasts everything from a Formula One simulator to squash courts.

Even if you’re not one of the lucky few with a ticket to the hallowed confines of the premium lounge, airports are looking to tap into your wallet. Airport spa facilities and designer retail outlets have become commonplace, while the next battleground is set to be the plate in front of you.

Celebrity chefs from Todd English to Wolfgang Puck are lending their name to stylish airport eateries across the globe, tapping into a hungry – and captive – audience. Design plays a role here too: Gordon Ramsay’s Plane Food at Heathrow T5 evokes a vintage British charm alongside a menu of homely bistro classics, while the styling over at The Perfectionist’s Café in Terminal 2 plays straight into Heston Blumenthal’s image of the loveable mad scientist. The food at both is superb.

It’s a crucial point. For as with the endless aesthetic tunnels of Paris CDG, form and function have to flow together. Great design and poor food, or a beautiful airport you’re forever lost in, would tarnish the allure of long-haul travel. With some of the world’s top designers hard at work ensuring that doesn’t happen, there’s never been a better time to dust off your passport.

First Published: 2015-06-01 Real Estate

Who is OnAnotherPlane...

RIchard Holmes headshot web smallRichard Holmes is a freelance travel, food and lifestyle writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. His work on African and international destinations has appeared in a wide range of consumer publications both in South Africa and abroad.