12 May 2008


What makes a nice airport?

"Situation Terminal" (via Philip Greenspun) laments the generally lousy state of modern airport design. Author Paul Goldberger writes that:

Airports are essentially machines for processing people, airplanes, automobiles, cargo, and luggage—all of which move in different ways, and which need to be connected at certain points and separated by rigid security at others.

The problem, he notes, is that in most current facilities are:

....an efficient layout for airport operations, as long as you don't consider passenger pleasure to be a part of airport operations.

I don't have a lot of experience with airports around the world—I've never been to the new terminals in China and Europe that Goldberger profiles as rare successful airport architecture—but I think Vancouver's YVR does a surprisingly decent job of it.

While many Vancouverites continue to complain about the "Airport Improvement Fee," instituted in the early '90s when the Canadian government leased the facility to the Vancouver Airport Authority, the money from that fee has transformed what was a small, drab, concrete slab during my childhood into a much larger, more interesting, well-lit, and beautiful space.

One thing I do find puzzling at YVR: most of the huge collection of Northwest Coast native art is well displayed, but it's in the international arrivals area. That's the one part of the facility where people are moving as fast as they can to get off their planes, through Customs, and out—where they'll spend little to no time looking at the artwork. There's a lot less of that stuff in the departure areas, which is where passengers are sometimes waiting around for hours, and where they might find some use looking at the art. Weird.

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YVR, in my experience, is the best airport in the world, hands down. And Singapore of course.

When I arrive from overseas to it's waterfalls and art, there is a sigh of relief. Ahhhhh,... home.

This is in stark contrast to returning home to Heathrow when I lived in the UK. Foreboding, stress, chaos, confusion, and mild depression :)
Well, JH has the project to visit you some day, and I think he is still hesitating...

Now, when he will discover from your blog that the airport is such a nice place, I am sure he will buy his plane tickets soon !

Beware !
I'm totally with you in the international terminal art stuff. The few times I've seen it, I've come back from a long trip and am just wanting to get home ASAP. And I walk by the pretty stuff on the walls and think that man, this looks so cool, I wish I wasn't so tired and could appreciate it. And also I think how unfair it is that only international travelers and tourists get to see it, as if locals aren't as worthy.
YVR is a terrific airport. It's so much better than most North American airports, and every airport I've been to on the British Isles. I quite like Charles du Galle and a few other European airports, but YVR definitely measures well against them.

I would say that the best piece of First Nations art in the airport is appropriately in the departures area: Bill Reid's astonishing "The Spirit of Haida Gwaii".
I'm with you on that, Darren, and I'm glad it's in a public area (next to Starbucks!), where anyone coming to the airport can go right up to it. That was a smart move.

My only other complaint with YVR is that there aren't as many areas as there used to be where you can watch planes, at least for non-passengers. But the restaurant at the Fairmont Hotel there is one very good such option, at least.
Returning to Toronto from Narita (Tokyo), I waited for a few hours for my connection in YVR, and appreciated the art displays. I was rested and in no hurry.
very good post
My favorite airports:

Reno, NV - small enough to be easy in/easy out. You can make some money on the Wheel-of-Fortune slot machine if you are lucky, too.

Elko, NV - so small it's crazy. You can get there 20 minutes before your flight, having parked your car about 200 ft away.

Least favorite airport:

Frankfurt - They not only confiscated my Leatherman (the one that the St. Petersburg airport security guys didn't notice) in my carry-on, but brought out for cops and made me sign a confession that I had this thing with me. It is a REALLY big deal in Germany. I think I have a criminal record in Germany now.