Architects don’t have an easy job, but there’s something especially daunting about designing an airport. The dramatically high volume of travelers that come through these transit points are also incredibly diverse. The necessary chokepoints like security stations and baggage claim add an extra layer of complexity to things, and while airports are fundamentally about shuttling people from one place to another as efficiently as possible, it’s also a place of commerce. These two competing notions are often in conflict with one another. As a result, architects have to be strategic with their design, and there are a number of clever tricks they’ve learned to employ over the years.
One of the key tasks an architect needs to achieve is putting customers at ease. The crowds, tight deadlines, and high level of security in airports can be incredibly stress-inducting, so designers have learned that establishing cues is necessary to facilitate a sense of orderly conduct. The most critical of these is a philosophy known as “wayfinding”. Getting lost disrupts the core efficiency of an airport while also exacerbating that core anxiety, so architects try to use the environment to guide individuals to their destinations as quickly as possible. Different terminals often use different signage, coloring, and even carpets to designate a change of environment, and large pieces of art serve as implicit guideposts for passengers who might have lost their way.
And while airports have become increasingly more secure with the presence of tighter security checkpoints and more officers, smart airport design ensures that passengers play an important role in maintaining order and security. Posters and signs throughout modern airports don’t just nudge customers into reporting suspicious behavior. They strongly enforce the notion that doing so is an act of virtue. In doing so, these prompts become an implicit act of virtue on the part of passengers rather than an imperative from an authoritarian figure.
One of the great ironies of modern airport design is that many of the security measures themselves are largely theater in the same way this signage is. Small measures like encouraging engagement by customers and increasing administrative security protocol have the most substantive effect on an airport’s security, but they aren’t decisions that are objectively present in the minds of passengers and thus do little to ease concerns about their safety. When new security machines and checkpoints are put in place, they’re as much for the sake of the attitudes of passengers as they are preventive anti-crime measures.
The depth of thought that goes into an airport’s design can be massive, and it’s changing every day. Much of it is a matter of alleviating anxieties, and the result are happier and more orderly passengers who will, not so incidentally, be more inclined to spend money at airport retail and restaurants.