Putting the there, back in your Airport

Derrick Choi, AIA, NCARB, LEED-AP, Populous
June 9, 2016


PHOTO: Proposed Provincetown Municipal Airport Net-Zero Energy Terminal Redevelopment Permitting Concept. Credits: Populous & Design|Distill

Important considerations to kick-start your airport redevelopment initiatives

“There is no there, there…”

The meaning of this Gertrude Stein quotation from her 1937 book, Everybody’s Autobiography, has been widely debated.  One theory purports this oft-quoted line refers to the loss of Stein’s childhood home.  In the complex public process of designing airport terminals and other aviation facilities, we often find our critics referring to this quotation in response to the “sense of place” (or lack thereof) at airports.  This quest to define a community’s identity that Stein alludes to is the premise for the complex design challenge airport development experts face on nearly every project. Design firms should work with communities to deliver innovative airport environments that authentically convey their civic aspirations and deliver memorable “gateway experiences” for visitors.  Often, this design process can be initiated by asking clients these questions:

  • What is it that you love about your community?  And what does your community love about the airport?
  • What are the values, experiences and unique characteristics that define your community?
  • What are the two or three things should visitors take away from their visit to your community?  How do you authentically integrate these elements in the holistic “gateway” experience – with the many tools available - technology applications, programming and events, retail mix, architectural expression, or perhaps urban design? Which – if any - of these work for you?
  • In the cut-throat arena of air service competition, where airports strive to be unique, convenient and affordable – how do YOU envision further differentiating YOUR airport by design?

In the design for an Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting facility at Martha’s Vineyard Airport in Massachusetts, the stakeholders challenged the project team to deliver a project that is distinctive, yet complementary with the overall terminal area while leveraging design cues from the agricultural “farmhouse” typology common to the region.  Every aspect of the design – from the arrival experience, to programming, to architectural detailing and material selections - is an opportunity to communicate the region’s brand.  It gives added weight to the design decisions that were made and it’s the motivation for the questions used in the conceptual process. By doing so, our gateway facilities can effectively convey what it means to live in and embrace the city, region and destination.  Arriving passengers here enjoy a uniquely “Vineyard” experience comparable to very few regional airports in the world – from the intimate scale and close proximity between passengers and aircraft and abundance of open-air waiting areas to the collegial, must-visit diner experience at the terminal’s renowned Plane View Restaurant.

At Boston-Logan International Airport - as part of a Harvard Graduate School of Design January-Term (“JTerm”) externship program – our extern student team assisted Massport - the airport operator - in exploring a new “Bostonian” identity for their international arrivals facility.  During the design development of Boston-Logan’ Terminal E, Popuous’ J-Term group was challenged by Massport to refresh the international arrivals experience.  Initial analyses identified five core Boston “storylines” that could be used to transform the arrivals experience.

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


Derrick Choi, AIA | NCARB | LEED-AP®, is an architect and airport terminal planner who leads Populous’ Aviation group from the firm’s Boston Office.  Enhancing communities with innovative public assembly designs for over three decades, Populous currently is involved in a number of unique community-building aviation placemaking initiatives from Atlanta to Singapore to Oakland to Provincetown.