New Indianapolis terminal is easy to use, but lacks a sense of place
Airline travel is basically torment. Always has been; the causes and proportions of its miseries merely shift over time. Today, credit the background tension of the terrorist threat, the passed-along stresses of beleaguered airlines, and the crowding, commotion and relentless hectoring trying to keep too many people under too-tight control.
Architecture didn’t cause these problems, so it’s especially intriguing to watch architects working creatively to fix them. If you didn’t actually have to fly, visiting new airport terminals around the world could be a tempting adventure.
Architects of the new Indy Airport, HOK of St. Louis and AeroDesign Group of Indianapolis, have applied plenty of design sweat to the fundamental issues, and it shows. The new terminal works remarkably well, and in many respects it’s even a pleasant place to hang out.
But unlike the most acclaimed new airport terminals, such as Denver and Madrid, the architecture itself doesn’t sizzle with distinctive energy. It’s a relatively anonymous citizen of the global village; it could be whisked off to any city anywhere and fit just as comfortably. There is beauty, but it grows more out of the internal logic and details than some stunning iconic form.
Is that enough for Indianapolis’s $1.1 billion investment? Well, most frazzled flyers today are happy just to be greeted by the absence of confusion, congestion and the dark feel of oppression. But in the best of all worlds, an arrival in a city is simultaneously a hassle-free welcoming and a celebration of place. This terminal delivers on the first half, doesn’t stretch itself toward the second. A hazy view of the very distant downtown skyline doesn’t make a meaningful celebration.
One of the architects’ prime goals was to make a self-explanatory building, one that visitors can find their way through without even needing signs. They’ve succeeded stunningly; the sequence from parking garage through ticketing to gates unfolds as logically as a sandwich wrapper. There may be no metropolitan airport in the country that’s as easy to get into, out of, and through. Cheers!
Part of the reason is the building’s openness and transparency. Unlike most terminals, it’s essentially a vast shell with most of the essential functions, such as ticket islands, plunked down as free-standing elements. The idea, as AeroDesign principal architect Alan Tucker explains, was to make the configuration as flexible as possible to accommodate future needs. If air travel in 2020 needs no ticket agents, their islands can dissolve and give the space over to something else.
That sense of transparency is enhanced by the astounding flood of daylight into every nook of the terminal. Even baggage check is blessed with a 30-foot-high ceiling and walls of windows on three sides. Since the terminal is almost immaculately devoid of any organic material, this great sweep of daylight forms its one connection to nature, the reminder that we’re not encapsulated in a totally artificial, self-referential environment. The light lifts spirits; even on a gray, drippy day the building seems a happier place than at night.
Since design took place post-9/11, the architects were able to fix or at least relieve some of the oppressive issues that have plagued airports since 2001. The most dramatic one is the Civic Plaza, a vast circular agora that functions as arrival lounge for waiting families, a setting for entertainment and press conferences, and shopping mall. Unlike many other recently new terminals, such as Seattle’s, it’s positioned ahead of security, open to everyone.
Its design flaw for now, at least is that it has the unmistakable feeling of a mall, stale and generic and untouched by spontaneity or whimsy. This was the one place in the terminal envelope for the architects to make a distinctive statement without infecting the overall functionality, and they missed it.
The architectural pizzazz is in the details, and they’re not just connoisseurs’ stuff.
Note, for starters, the graphic for “women” on the restroom signs: in contrast to the usual stolid figure, the skirt hem traces a fetching wave. The cantilevering arms holding the shops’ signs also curve, these in an arc precisely mimicking a bent branch dangling a pendant of heavy fruit. This evocation of the natural world, even when it’s cast in aluminum, serves as a subliminal reminder of humanity’s place within that world. We don’t exist apart from nature—something that can be difficult to remember in any airport terminal.
The concourse ceilings, which trace an upswept arc evoking the dihedral of an aircraft wing, are another beautiful detail. Ever since Eero Saarinen’s landmark Dulles terminal opened in 1962, flight metaphors have been deployed so often in airport design that they’ve become cliché. But the cliché has rarely been executed as elegantly as this.
You’ll also appreciate these concourses for their widebody dimensions. They’re 110 feet across, framed by outward-canting glass on both sides, so there’s never a sense of feeling squeezed. After the generous daylight, in fact, this is the best quality of the new terminal: because it’s so spacious, logically organized and uncluttered, it feels less busy than it is—as if a third of the frequent-flying flock had magically decided to stay home.
There are some functional irritants, most of them in these same departure concourses. No end tables to park drinks or food alongside the comfortable leatherette seating. No electrical outlets for laptops, except in locations where a cord would have to trickle across a footpath. And if you unluckily get planted at gate B9 for an hour, you’ll have to listen to this nag exactly 720 times: “The moving walkway is coming to an end. Please watch your step.” It’s endlessly, agonizingly, infuriatingly grating.
One of the alleged art installations is also more aggravating than amusing: “Connections,” the show that sprays the moving walkway between terminal and parking garage with spacey electronic music and colored light. Simplistic and predictable, this low-budget high-tech whiz-bang might have seemed way cool at the dawn of synthesized music and electronically programmed light. But that was 40 years back.
And now speaking of 40 years, it’s worth pondering how airport design has evolved in that time—and what we’ve gained and lost along the way.
Every airport’s functional requirements are vastly more complex today, shuffling many times more passengers and luggage through a maze of screening requirements and into a scheduling web stretched right to the brink of disintegration. An urban airport today is poised at the lip of the abyss of chaos, which means that the architect can hardly dare to impose any idiosyncrasy—which is what normally makes architecture distinctive and fun. Nobody has hired Frank Gehry to do an airport; the very thought is terrifying.
But is perfect clarity the right answer, the holy grail of air terminal design? Not entirely. It may lead toward the mitigation of misery, but not to investing air travel with humanity and a sense of wonder. That’s a quality that’s never really existed in commercial travel, despite our selective memories, and maybe it isn’t even possible.
That Civic Plaza, flexible, light-splashed cavern that it is, could still be the key. Ten or 20 years from now, when this terminal’s first expansion or redo occurs, it could become something better than shopping mall-cum-arrival hall. It could become a museum of flight, or a setting for a form of kinetic sculpture not even imagined today.
Airport terminals mostly grow worse over time, the modifications just making them more confusing and oppressive. This one, in contrast, seems pregnant with opportunity. Hard to imagine, but flying could even become fun.