Breaking out of their role as generic waystations, airports are creating compelling experiences with public art, interpretive storytelling, and environmental graphics.
Many of us are filled with dread at the thought of having to spend an inordinate amount of time at an airport. We try to plan our arrival just right, negotiating road conditions, check-in lines, security procedures, restroom stops, and quick caffeine fixes. If we cruise up to the gate just as we hear our boarding call announced over the loudspeakers, we’ve won a major victory.
In reality, this scenario rarely transpires. Instead we spend countless minutes and hours pacing the hallways of a non-descript terminal until we board our flight, resolved to coordinate better next time.
Part of the problem is that we perceive airports solely as places of transition. And that is typically how airports have been presented: as functional, utilitarian structures that facilitate the movement of people from one activity to the next. But if we have to pass time at airports—and we increasingly do—our experiences might as well be enjoyable.
Fortunately for travelers, this idea is gaining momentum, and it isn’t limited to the typical retail and restaurant offerings. “A lot of airports are trying to do more than just sell people overpriced water,” says Isaac Marshall, principal of AldrichPears Associates (Vancouver). Airports such as San Francisco International have been creating immersive experiences on airport for years. The SFO Museum was the first cultural institution of its kind located in an international airport. Today, SFO offers an aquarium, an aviation library and museum, and numerous art and photo exhibits for the 30 million passengers who use the airport each year.
Working on their own variations of this model, the Norman Y. Mineta San José International Airport and Vancouver International Airport have also envisioned comprehensive experiences for users and visitors. Using public art, interpretive storytelling, and environmental graphics, they’ve created experiences that provide a compelling sense of place, promote the cultural and intellectual assets of their regions, and transcend the expected role of generic waystation. In the process, they create impressions that just might outlast the memories of long waits in the security line.
DESTINATION: AIRPORT? Vancouver International Airport
The desire to build and develop a sense of place within the airport environment is equally important to the Vancouver Airport Authority, which operates Vancouver International Airport. “When you arrive at YVR, we want you know you are in a different place,” says Anne Murray, vice president of community affairs. “We do this through architecture and art.”
When the airport’s new terminal building opened in 1996 (designed by Vancouver-based architects Clive Grout), the YVR Art Foundation—which funds, promotes, supports, and displays Northwest Coast aboriginal art at public buildings—embraced the theme of Land, Sea and Sky. These elements are highlighted in the Pacific Passage exhibit, a space in the international arrivals terminal that celebrates the natural surroundings and indigenous culture of British Columbia’s west coast. The design depicts the edge of a coastal forest and an ocean bay, complete with a soundscape of rushing water and chirping birds. This diorama serves as a backdrop to several large contemporary indigenous art pieces.
The goals for YVR’s new Observation Area were a bit different. Murray describes it as more focused on the community than art. “This was a response to demands from people wanting to see and understand the airport,” says Murray. “We track customer requests and would often hear, ‘I want to look at the airplanes. Where can I do that?’ Since the rise in security, there wasn’t really a place. So we created an exhibit where people could find out more about the airport.”
Located in the public, pre-security area of the domestic terminal, the 500-sq.-meter area helps orient visitors to their location with floor-to-ceiling picture windows that overlook the airfield and the Strait of Georgia. Along the windows, seven static information panels feature facts, photos, and diagrams about the activities visitors may see on the airfield and beyond.
AldrichPears Associates had the challenging task of interpreting the YVR experience in a compelling and legible manner. “We see ourselves as the mediator between content and audience,” says principal Ron Pears. “We need to know both so the creation of an appropriate set of experiences can be done with confidence.” This required anticipating basic questions visitors may have: How do airplanes fly? Where is that airplane going? What type of airplane is that? To help viewers connect what they’re reading indoors to what is happening outside, the firm strategically placed high-power telescopes along the wall at different heights.
Visitors can delve deeper into the airport experience—learning about air traffic control, real-time flight activity, the journey of luggage, and YVR employees—through three interactive kiosks. Transparency in operations is part of the goal. “The airport is quite respectful of travelers,” explains Pears.” They want people to have as good a time as they can. So these interventions, to see airplanes, the natural world, etc., are purposeful decisions.”
The centerpiece of the exhibit is a large-scale model that offers a bird’s eye view of the airport’s position on Sea Island. Push-button switches on the associated panels trigger lights on the model to help contextualize the stories of Sea Island’s history. The model highlights different perspectives of the island, from the significance of the site to First Nations to industrial activities in the 1900s to the development of YVR as it exists today.
The model’s compound curves presented a challenge, says Duane Fast, general manager of Artcraft Display Graphics (Port Coquitlam, BC), the fabricator of both the Observation Area and the Pacific Passage exhibit. Artcraft produced the graphics for the model with the company’s proprietary embedded polycarbonate process. “In order to accommodate that difficult scenario, we were able to embed our graphics into an ultrathin compound,” says Fast. “This we were able to heat and form to the irregular surface shape for a scratch-resistant and permanent product.”
Because the exhibit is free and accessible to everyone, it required not only enduring materials, but also a strong message that bolstered regional pride. “We knew when we educated the community, they would take pride in it,” says Murray. And they did. The Observation Area opened in July 2009, the month before a rapid transit line connecting YVR and downtown Vancouver began. “Those two elements together created a destination for locals. People actually come out for day trips.”
--By Jennifer Volland, segdDESIGN No. 31, 2011
Editor's note: Jennifer Volland is a freelance writer and curator based in Long Beach, Calif. She co-authored the book Long Beach Architecture: The Unexpected Metropolis.