Designing the Airports of the Future

Designing the Airports of the Future

Newark Liberty International Airport is one of the busiest hubs in the United States, with more than 43 million passengers flying in and out in 2017 alone. By midcentury, says Marilyn Jordan Taylor, professor of architecture and urban design and former dean, it’s expected to handle as many as 60 million passengers a year. And the facility itself is aging.

“It’s a mid-20th century concept that has limped its way into the 21st century,” Taylor says.

This semester, Taylor, who spent much of her career designing airports around the globe with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, led a design studio that took a wide-angle view of the airport’s future—more capacity and more service, but hopefully better connections to Newark, and investments in struggling neighborhoods in the adjacent South Ward. The studio included six architecture students and six planning students, with concentrations in transportation, land use and economic development, and real-estate development.

“The studio had a joint purpose,” Taylor says, “which was to propose and put into public discussion a new airport design that would place a land-side terminal right next to and on top of the railroad so it’s easy for train passengers to ride the railroad to the airport rather than taking  their cars, but also, more importantly, to be a bridge between the activity of the airport and the people of the City of Newark, especially those in the South Ward.”

Taylor’s class was just one of three design studios in the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design that dealt with the evolving shape of American airports this spring. Students in two other architecture studios created concepts for Philadelphia International Airport and New York Stewart International Airport in Newburgh (SWF). It’s been almost 25 years since the last international airport opened in the U.S., in Denver, but competition among airports is as fierce as ever, says Megan S. Ryerson, UPS Chair of Transportation and Associate Dean for Research at the Weitzman School.

“Urban competition is at the very foundation of a lot of the development of cities and their transportation infrastructure, so that history is alive and well in air transportation,” Ryerson says. “Underlying the city’s desire for airport development is a desire to be seen as an important world class city, to build business in general and to be connected to the world.”

Brandt Knapp, co-founder of the New York-based architecture and design studio BRANDT : HAFERD and a lecturer in graduate architecture at the Weitzman School, led a studio focused on re-imagining infrastructure in Newburgh, New York, a Hudson Valley town that’s home to New York Stewart International Airport (SWF), which is planning to expand. The studio was premised on establishing a food hub at the Shortline Transportation Center, close to Stewart. The first half of the semester was dedicated to researching Newburgh and the agriculture of the Hudson Valley, along with food justice practices and the future of transportation. The goal of the work was to explore ways to connect urban, suburban, and rural parts of New York.

“I wanted to study Newburgh specifically because of its proximities and I’ve been interested in how infrastructure can make a connection between urban areas and rural areas,” Knapp says. “What’s fascinating and well known about the Hudson Valley and the industrial cities along the Hudson River north of New York City is that the bones of their building stock are really great because they were these booming industrial cities, but since urban renewal many have become half-abandoned, so there is this ‘great potential,’ I believe, particularly now when how we live and work and cultivate the land is changing.”

Students displayed models of their concepts in May. They were encouraged to be speculative, and to envision new ways of commuting and working. One project proposed turning a long-distance commuter parking lot into a “nucleus of local entrepreneurship and leisure,” with a food market, daycare, library, and gym designed to encourage commuters to explore space and interact. Another framed an underground “high-tech monastic factory and transportation hub” for residents to live and work, creating “robot-assisted artisanal stained glass,” and space for visitors traveling through the regional bus systems.

Last week, the students presented the projects again at a Think Tank organized by Andrés Ramirez, director of the non-profit Aerial Futures, in collaboration with Knapp. The event ended with a public event focusing on using the airport expansion as a catalyst for regional development, featuring Knapp and representatives of New York Stewart International Airport and the Newburgh Department of Planning & Development.

“It’s really about seeing the project at various scales, so it’s actually kind of amazing that we go from this regional area or even global when considering the airport down to details, and how we keep rainwater out,” Knapp says. “The important thing is to see what’s there and emphasize the assets of the Hudson Valley — technology, farming, the river — and propose infrastructures and architectures that allow the people that are there and committed and invested to succeed in what they do.”

Philadelphia International has no immediate expansion plans, but, as Masoud Akbarzadeh says, “It’s one of the lowest-quality airports in the region.” Akbarzadeh, Assistant Professor of Architecture in Structures and Advanced Technologies and the Director of the Polyhedral Structures Laboratory, led students in a course focused on structural design research. The studio presupposed a new terminal at PHL, and students were directed to “design the geometry of the force rather than the form.” In Akbarzadeh’s studios, structural considerations determine the shapes of building prototypes.

“This is a powerful method of design since, in this method, a designer designs the configuration of force equilibrium in three-dimensional space and extracts expressive, long-span, spatial architectural structures as opposed to the common design methods where arbitrary formal propositions are analyzed to asses their structural properties,” Akbarzadeh says.

Airports are particularly a good fit for structural design research because terminal spaces need open space facilitating the flow of people and various programs. In Akbarzadeh’s studio, students explore a variety of non-conventional structural systems by applying the principles of structural design in the very early stages of the design. They were also encouraged to consider the efficient organization of the internal space, such as moving passengers around quickly and connections to ground and air transit. They also looked into how emerging modes of transportation might change the shape of the airports in the future.

“It’s exactly the right time to prepare students who will shortly join design firms in the future to be challenged with such a complex program, thinking about structure, architectural space, materials, and organization,” Akbarzadeh says.

Taylor, whose studio was designed to overlap with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s focus on equitable growth, says Newark is better-positioned than any other U.S. airport to reset its orientation to the city, allowing neighborhood access to high-quality jobs, and even pedestrian access to its terminals. And student teams rose to the occasion, she says.

“This was the moment when I really understood that our students at the Weitzman School have the skills to take on really transformative transportation projects like an airport, and they really lived up to the opportunity,” Taylor says. “I’m very excited with what they were able to do.”