World’s Most Iconic Airports

Filed Under: Airports

There was a time, not so long ago, when airports in major international cities weren’t more attractive than your average industrial warehouse -- a fitting environment as passengers in the 1970s and '80s were essentially loaded and unloaded like so much cargo. Narrow hallways harshly lit with florescent lighting, depressing décor and confusing layouts downgraded a once-glamorous, fashionable adventure into a distinctly pedestrian experience.

Fortunately, that particularly unattractive era in aviation history is becoming a blurred (and hopefully distant) memory as cities are tapping renowned architects -- and making investments in the billions -- to transform their busiest terminals into fully functional works of art.

While the modern wave in airport design kicked off in Asia (with Beijing, Bangkok, Osaka, Incheon and Singapore all creating soaring, light-infused terminals that could vie for "world’s most exceptional") the rest of the world has taken the trend and run with it. Now, hubs from Wellington, New Zealand to Montevideo, Uruguay, are undergoing total transformations, pushing the boundaries of design in inspiring ways while staying true (whenever possible) to local cultures and sensibilities.

The resulting structures are not only exceedingly more interesting and inviting than they once were, they’re designed to transform the entire passenger experience. Not all of the new designs have received unanimous raves, but the 10 featured here have certainly been the subject of admiration -- and endless conversation.

Marrakech-Menara Airport, Terminal 1
Marrakech, Morocco
Where traditional Islamic design meets sleek ultra-modern architecture you’ll find Terminal 1, a beautiful study in the confluence of cultures and artistic sensibilities. Architects at the Casablanca-based firm of E2A Architecture probably stole a page from the playbook of many runway designers when they softened the edge of the building’s starkly geometric exterior structure by layering it with delicate-looking arabesque screens. The sun shining through the scrolling patterns creates a beautiful play of light and shadow throughout the terminal.
Incheon International Airport
Incheon, South Korea
Conceived by renowned airport architect Curtis Fentress (who also designed the iconic peaks of the Denver International Airport), Incheon publicly spotlights the best of traditional Korean design -- while still emerging as a futuristic model of efficiency. Before he started building, Fentress traveled throughout the country, visiting ancient landmarks and studying the design of traditional religious buildings. Thus, the roofline of the resulting terminal mimics that of a Korean temple, and throughout the building, you’ll find precious artifacts that date back thousands of years.
Barajas Airport, Terminal 4
Madrid, Spain
This sweeping space, which was designed by Antonio Lamela and Richard Rogers and opened in 2006, was built to provide the 50 million passengers who pass through it each year with an airy, stress-free zone through which to begin or end their journeys. This worry-free effect is achieved with glass-paneled walls that allow in plenty of light, a gently undulating roofline constructed from long beams of pale bamboo, and candy-colored pylons that graduate through the rainbow, red to purple, as you walk along the half-mile terminal.
King Abdulaziz International Airport, Jeddah Hajj Terminal
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Unlike the rest of the terminals featured here, the one at Jeddah is only in operation during hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca that takes place in the last month of the year. This temporary open-air terminal is covered with 210 white fiberglass tents that help cool the desert air by as much as 50 degrees without air-conditioning.
Kansai International Airport
Osaka, Japan
Located on a purpose-built, manmade island off the coast of downtown Osaka, this mega-hub took over all international and some domestic flights once handled by the city’s Itami Airport. Created by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano, the ultra-modern, mile-long terminal resembles the interior of an airplane fuselage with corridors shooting out like wings from the main hallway.
Lyon-Saint Exupéry
Lyon, France
Whether its twin steel arches remind you of a bird in flight -- or something that alighted in Lyon from a universe far, far away -- you can definitely spot some kind of avian-theme in France’s fourth busiest airport, designed by architect Santiago Calatrava. At 130 feet tall and nearly 400 feet long, the main arches that compose the terminal allow just the right amount of light to enter the main concourse. The airport is a popular hub for skiers heading to one many resorts located in the nearby region, such as Courchevel, Meribel and Val Thorens.
Changi Airport Terminal 3
With an on-site movie theater, kids playground and a legendary 4-story slide, there’s no doubt that Changi’s Terminal 3 is one of the world’s most action-packed terminals. But thanks to the facelift it received by CPG Corporation and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, it also vies for one of the world’s most beautiful. The “butterfly” roof has 919 skylights and corresponding reflector panels that adjust to allow just the right amount of daylight inside. At night, these same skylights glow with lighting carefully concealed below the panels. The terminal’s most dramatic feature, however, may be the 5-story vertical garden (aka “The Green Wall”), which has 4 waterfalls and spans nearly 1,000 feet across the main building.
Wellington Airport "The Rock" Terminal
Wellington, New Zealand
While many architects tend to focus on airiness, light and the “sensation of flight” when designing airports, the one who recreated the Wellington’s recently expanded international terminal -- nicknamed “The Rock” -- made a deliberate departure from that trend. In his quest to create something theatrical and distinctively Kiwi, Nick Barratt-Boyes opted to build 3 copper-clad structures that from the outside look like a trio of boulders. (Critics say it reminds them of pumpkins, eggs, or at worst, a collection of cow dung.) The pre-weathered metal is designed to develop a blue-green patina as the buildings are exposed to the elements -- but that’s only if they weather the test of time.
Carrasco International Airport
Montevideo, Uruguay
The beauty of this new terminal, designed by Uruguayan-born architect Rafael Viñoly, is in its grace and simplicity: The entire structure is housed under a gently arching rooftop that sweeps 1,200 feet across the landscape. Designed to blend in seamlessly with its environment, the airport offers a wide-open, welcoming public space meant to be enjoyed by passengers and the loved ones who come to greet them (in Uruguay, it's still a tradition -- and permissible -- to meet your family and friends at the gate).
Winnipeg International Airport, Terminal 2
Winnipeg, Canada
Renowned architect César Pelli (who designed the Petronas Towers in Malaysia and the International Financial Centre in Hong Kong) drew his inspiration from the vast prairies and sky when he conceived of this terminal, the first freestanding airport building in Canada that’s LEED-certified. Skylights, an atrium and large windows fill the space with light and bring the big sky inside -- a design element that (along with “smart” mechanical systems) helps reduce overall energy consumption.

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