December 3, 2018

Why bother with complicated, sometimes messy terminal upgrades if your airport is not facing capacity issues? In this last post we explore airports as drivers for and representations of the local community.  Click here for Part III of the series.

Airports provide a gateway for and to communities and so are significant pieces of civic architecture. Therefore it’s important to develop design solutions that represent the region and are as unique as the community the airport services. For the final post in my “Why Bother?” series, I chatted with our Director of Architectural Design, Jeff Kuhnhenn, AIA, LEED AP, about how terminal modernization projects can help airports better represent – and even market – the region they serve.


Wilson Rayfield (WR): Before we dig into contextual design, let’s talk about the various approaches to airport design.

Jeff Kuhnhenn (JK): Frequently you’ll see two approaches to airport design: a facility designed as a processing machine or a purely artistic expression, often of flight. In the former function completely outweighs form – think of much of the brutalist architecture still seen at airports today – while in the latter aesthetics are extremely important. A purely functional airport is not inspiring and probably doesn’t provide the best passenger experience. A purely artistic building might not provide optimal processing, which also negatively impacts the travel experience. Every airport should be designed for flow, for functionality, but that’s just a starting point and simply not enough. As designers, we should create spaces, particularly civic buildings, that are inspirational and uplifting.

WR: Agreed. So, if airports are an important part of a region’s “brand” then terminal design should result in a functional airport that also features an artistic interpretation of local iconography. I started a discussion of this in my last post. Reno-Tahoe International Airport is a good example, as well as our work at Richmond International Airport. When we designed improvements at Richmond we thought about how to create a modern airport – that optimizes passenger flow – while also reflecting Jefferson’s Virginia.


Columns and red brick combined with modern, clean lines at Richmond International Airport nod to Virginia’s rich colonial and Jeffersonian architecture.


WR: What are some of the other reasons why creating a connection to the region is so important?

JK: Airports are often the first and last places travelers visit, so that impression is crucial. And beyond the first impressions airports provide, they play an important role in supporting and portraying a region’s brand. And while community pride is beneficial, airports are also critical to business—connecting people.

WR: Airports are economic drivers that provide access to and from a place. They facilitate business but can also help attract business whether it’s tourism or as a selling point to businesses considering investing in a region. For businesses, that consider convenient, frequent and cost-effective air travel when deciding where to locate, airport access is important. And there’s value in the airport reflecting the community qualities and characteristics that attracted the business there—it creates a cohesive, consistent message, it more fully integrates the airport into the community.


Charlotte Douglas International Airport plays a vital role in supporting the city’s growth. The design will expand the terminal lobby and optimize circulation to help the airport accommodate growth while also reflect the character and heritage of the Queen City.


WR: How do you design a functional building for moving people and goods in a way that also reflects the community?

JK: Any statement of architectural character has to derive from and enhance the function of the facility. But communities are complex, diverse entities that resist distilling their essential character into a single driving idea. Too many points of inspiration can muddy the message.  As designers, our task is to find that balance between function and identity; To identify that one quality that meshes with the needs and nature of airport transportation and which locals will experience and say “This is US!”


Gresham Smith’s terminal modernization project at Tampa International Airport brought in local imagery, including photos of local flowers, into the updated restrooms.


WR: Typically, we think about terminal modernization as a way to increase capacity. In this series, we also delved into the operational, financial and passenger experience benefits these projects can garner. However, terminal modernization projects also provide a significant opportunity to create a connection to and serve as a beacon of the communities they serve. This connection can help shape and promote a region’s brand and enhance the passenger experience, further supporting an airport’s role as an imperative economic driver.