The Questions Airport Managers, Designers & Planners Should Ask to Kick Start an Aviation Project

June 3, 2015

“There is no there, there…”

Since 1937, the meaning of this Gertrude Stein quotation from her book, Everybody’s Autobiography, has been widely debated in literary circles.  When returning to the States, the author took a ferry from San Francisco to Oakland in search of the farm in which she grew up.  One theory suggests that this oft-quoted line was written in response to the loss of Stein’s childhood home.  Interestingly enough, in the complex public process of designing airport passenger terminals and other aviation facilities, we often find our communities and critics making reference to this particular Gertrude Stein quote in response to the sense of place, or lack thereof, at airports throughout the country.

This quest to capture and define a community’s identity that Stein alludes to is the premise for the complex design challenge we often face. We set out to help communities realize airport environments that can creatively and authentically convey the civic aspirations of their stakeholders and deliver memorable “gateway experiences” for visitors who begin and end their visit at the airport.  To do this, we like to kick off the design process for our aviation facilities by asking our clients a few questions:

  • What is it that you love about your community?  And conversely, what do you think the community loves about your airport?
  • What are the values, experiences and unique characteristics that help define and make your community or region special?
  • What 2 or 3 things, in your opinion, should a visitor take away from their visit to your community?  How do you envision authentically integrating these elements in the holistic passenger experience – with the many tools available – technology applications, programming and events, retail mix, architectural expression, or perhaps urban design? Which of these work for you and how do you prioritize them?
  • In the competitive arena of air service competition where every airport seems to be unique, convenient and affordable – how do YOU envision further differentiating your airport product by design?

Early in the design process of an Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) facility at Martha’s Vineyard Airport, our team was asked by the client to consider two things: first, design and building that is distinctive, yet complementary with the overall airport terminal area; and second, to take cues from the agricultural “farmhouse” typology that can be found interspersed in the immediate area between West Tisbury and Edgartown on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.  We studied the area farmhouses, civic structures and the unique context of the airport to generate a design response that at once welcomed guests arriving to and from the island and anticipated long-term development of the main passenger terminal area campus.  The design for the ARFF facility, a 20,000 SF, 6-bay fire truck and snow removal equipment support building adjacent to the main passenger terminal completes the west development area of the terminal complex, as defined in the Airport Master Plan.

Every aspect of the design – from the arrival experience, to the programming, to the architectural details, to the materials used – is an opportunity to communicate the region’s brand.  It gives added weight to each decision we make and it’s the reason we ask tough questions as soon as the design process begins, so we can – by design – convey what it means to live in and love the city, region and destination.

At Martha’s Vineyard Airport, passengers arriving through the airport enjoy a uniquely “Vineyard” experience comparable to very few in the world.  The intimate sense of scale, close proximity between passengers and aircraft, abundance of open air waiting areas replete with indigenous plantings, and a collegial, must-visit diner experience at the airport’s famous Plane View restaurant offer visitors and locals a real gem of a regional airport.  We chose a combination of timeless and progressive materials and technologies – from classic cedar shingles to composite metal rain screen paneling to photovoltaic arrays – in a manner that is consistent with the simple, understated practicality of the region and to pay homage to the agricultural tradition of West Tisbury. Future terminal redevelopment and additional structures – like the ARFF – within the immediate terminal area aspire to reinforce this unique travel atmosphere in a manner that concurrently speaks of the airport and the community it reflects.

At Boston-Logan International Airport – as part of our Harvard Graduate School of Design January-Term externship program – we sought to create a uniquely “Bostonian” identity for the international arrivals experience at Logan’s International Terminal.  In the midst of a major redevelopment at Terminal E, our externship group was asked by Massport (the operators of Logan Airport) to re-imagine their arrival hall to heighten the user experience for both visitors and local meeter-greeters and well-wishers alike.  Our analysis identified 5 core Boston storylines to design the international arrivals experience around:

  • Innovation Hub
  • Natural Resources
  • History
  • Cultural Icons and Iconic Events
  • People

Our charrette yielded a range of design responses that solved multiple terminal operational issues and proposed a distinctive design strategy that resonated with our core storylines.  For example, when we looked at the “people” category, our response took into account the demographic explosion of the last two decades that has characterized the new Boston. The design concept rehabilitates the existing lit wall that separates immigrations and customs from the public meeter-greeter waiting area for international arrivals in Terminal E. The technological revamp of the existing arrivals hall wall would not require significant reconstruction, but the interactive visual display system would provide both large-scale, real-time flight information displays while projecting pre-recorded messages from Bostonians from all around the greater metropolitan area – as well as allow for in-situ recordings for a more interactive flair.  The interactive nature of this display could result in a vibrant, ever-changing dialogue between visitors and Bostonians alike that begin to offer a meaningful way to realize a unique gateway moment at Boston-Logan International Airport.


Regardless of the size, complexity, or scope of a project, by recognizing the important role the contemporary airport environment plays as a gateway to communicate a city’s authentic brand to visitors, we seek to continually enrich the visitor experience in a meaningful, lasting way.


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