Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

Review: New Indianapolis Airport Terminal – Part 1: Exterior

This is the first post in a multi-part series providing a comprehensive review of the new H. Weir Cook Terminal at the Indianapolis International Airport. When you are done here you can read part two (the interior), part three (finishes and furnishes), part four (signage), part five (the artwork), part six (miscellaneous, or rethinking the airport as public place), and part seven (conclusion).

Let’s get a few things out of the way up front.

Is this terminal world class architecture? No.

Did Indianapolis deserve world class architecture for $1.1 billion? Yes.

Is this nevertheless a terminal the city can be proud of? Yes, clearly.

Perhaps the best summation I heard of the terminal was “Indianapolis: You Don’t Have to Move Anymore”. I went into this tour with a skeptical eye ready to find problems. But I found very few. There is a clearly a huge amount of intelligent thought and attention to detail that went into this. The city has been on a roll implementing major capital projects: the library, Lucas Oil Stadium, the convention center expansion, and this terminal all come to mind. Of what I’ve seen, this is the most successful major civic project in the city from an architectural point of view. You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and this terminal is a more than worthy first impression for visitors. I expect more than a few new arrivals to be taken aback that a terminal this good exists in a smaller Midwestern city like Indy.

This terminal is not world class in that its architecture will not, with limited exceptions, attract notice for its design. Architects HOK are known for functionality, not the sublime. Yet this terminal is world class in a sense. Namely it would be a terminal that would look at home in any city in the world, no matter how elite. And in practice it kicks the crap out of such notorious pits as LGA and LHR T3. While it is no Madrid Barajas, this airport outclasses almost every other one I’ve been in – and I’ve been in a lot. And while Madrid may possibly have the world’s more stunning airport, it has functional problems, notably a single long row of gates in its international side, the fact that you need to take a train to a remote satellite, and extremely long waits for bags from the automated system. If the new IND is as functional as it looks, it should actually beat Madrid from a functional standpoint.

If the new terminal is not a grand slam home run, it’s at least a triple.

With that, here’s a picture of the main terminal building on the departures level.

You see clearly here the modern design in white metal and glass. Very sleek and aerodynamic, befitting an airport. The tortoise shell type of design of the roof just says “airport terminal”. While I think it works well, it is pretty boring vernacular architecture, IMO. Similarly, the wing shaped canopies, sloped forward to provide the feeling of forward motion and energy, are effective, but standard. This is a motif that is in wide use today and while effective is not inspiring.

The same motif is echoed on the light poles along the access road:

These are nice light standards. The same motif also recurs in the interior, at the ticketing counters, for example.

One the whole, you can see a pleasant, modern airport design here.

Here’s an interesting look of the back side of the terminal building from the tarmac between the two concourses.

To me this looks a bit like a gigantic eye rising up out of the ground.

Here is one of the concourses.

Again, what can you really say except, “It’s an airport”. I do though like how the light poles angle following the slope of the curtain wall on the concourse.

Here’s one publicly accessible area of the exterior of the terminal, this one right outside of baggage claim.

You can also see a piece of art here. There’s another similar area on the other side of the terminal. I actually like this space a lot. It is also easily visible from inside the terminal because of the glass wall, which very neatly draws the outside in.

The airport authority could have stopped with this basic, serviceable terminal design and declared victory. But they didn’t fall into that trap. Instead, they brought a lot of design intelligence to the ancillary structures of the airport, even something as mundane as the parking payment processing barrier. This is where the design really shines. In fact, I’d argue that the exterior architecture of these buildings actually exceeds that of the main terminal.

Here, for example, is the new control tower.

This is the first major structure you see entering the airport off the expressway so it is critical to creating a good first impression of the facility when arriving by highway. As the third tallest tower in the country, it is even more so a prominent structure. The original tower was designed by I.M. Pei and was one of the few structures in town designed by an architect of international repute, but this tower actually surpasses it. I’ve never liked the typical airport tower with flat windows set at oblique angles to create a sort of octagonal effect. This one with its continuous curve sloping away from the building looks much more handsome in addition to creating a sense of upward thrust. The octagonish small top piece fades into the background next to that. Note the similarity of the angle to the lighting towers flanking the concourse. There’s also a faint allusion to the motif used for the canopies (and of course the direct use of it for what appears to be a bus shelter on the bottom left of the photo). The buttresses underneath reinforce the look of this tower as a sort of cap or stopper on the concrete shaft, which I think is a nice touch.

The tower itself rises up from a base building that is a low rise office structure.

In this building the designers used horizontal banding to reinforce the low rise nature. This makes a nice yin and yang type contrast with the main tower. The other thing I’d say is that this building looks nicer than most new Class A suburban office buildings you see in the city. Given that this is an ancillary structure with presumably no public access, it is remarkable to see this much care go into the design.

Here you see the parking garage in a distance view, showing a decorative corkscrew-like funnel object on the top of the circular entrance and exit ramps.

And here’s a closeup.

Here you see that it almost looks like a radar or satellite dish, and you see the upward thrusting motif from the tower and the concourse lights again.

Continuing with the garage, here you see a view of the canopy over the central corridor of the garage. Parking passengers are funneled here to get into the main terminal building. The interior features artwork that will be covered in a future posting. This structure uses the same metal “tripod” type supports as the main terminal. Interestingly, it forsakes the upward thrusting motif in favor of a downward facing arc. You’ll see the contrast with the tower in the background. I’m not sure on the reason for this, though it might have to do with light capture. Whatever the case, it again gives a nice yin-yang balance. Remember this design because you’ll see it again a couple more times.

Here is the side of the garage facing the terminal, seen panned to one side. This is likewise taken from the departures road in front of the terminal, just the same as the central canopy, only from a slightly different spot.

Speaking of the canopy, you see the downward arc carried through here. You also see a lot of landscaping. This will hopefully end up looking very nice.

Here is one of my absolute favorite shots. It shows the side of the parking garage.

The entire garage structure makes use of the upward thrust motif. This pictures lets you see that the angle of the slop one the garage is identical to that of the top of the tower. There are also two sloping projections that reinforce this. The mirrored glass reflects the extensive glass on the main terminal. The narrower base treatments also carry through in a way as well. Again, this is a parking garage. most places this would be a simple rectangular block. But here the airport authority decided to spend money to do something special with it. This is an example to follow elsewhere.

At the new IND, it is even a pleasure to pay to park. Here’s where you do so. Again, we see the same design cues. And again, we see a lot of attention paid to a structure that could have ended up an afterthought.

Since I’m a road geek, I’ll wrap this up with a picture of a service road overpass that is rather tastefully done as these things go:

To sum up, while I think the exterior of the main terminal building itself is rather undistinguished, it is serviceable and effective. But the other buildings in the complex really stand out for being so much above the average you normally get.

I’ll wrap up this installment by noting two other unique facets of the terminal. First, this was the first terminal designed from the ground up post-9/11. This means it was designed to clearly accommodate in its very conception the new security environment in which we live. It features all sorts of cool things like in-line baggage scanning, two large security screening halls, a plethora of dining and shopping opens both before and beyond security, protected connections between concourses to that you don’t need to re-pass through security, etc. The TSA setup at the airport will also feature the latest scanning equipment – including the dreaded Total Recall-esque see through your clothing X-ray booth – fast track lines, family lines, etc. Hopefully this airport will prove a dream for people who are used to the tacked on security at most other airports.

Secondly, this is one of the very first airports to target LEED certification. In fact, it might be in the first instance in the United States where an entire terminal complex achieves LEED certification. While it will be a year or so before the US Green Building Council renders a ruling, LEED compliance was built in from the ground up. (If they don’t pass certification, someone should lose their head). Here are some of the green features in the new airport:

  • Public transport will be provided
  • A roofing membrane that is star rated for energy efficiency will be used
  • The project will use local materials wherever possible
  • Light fixtures with shielded and directed light – which reduces light pollution – will be used
  • Infrared switches on bathroom and toilet fixtures will be used, as well as high-efficiency toilet fixtures to reduce water consumption
  • Construction waste management will be carefully controlled, and old asphalt and concrete reused as back-fill in other areas of the project
  • The timber used in construction will be obtained from Forest Stewardship Council environmentally managed and sustainable forests
  • Airport vehicles will be powered by electric motors wherever possible or using clean-burning fuels
  • An energy-efficient underfloor heating / cooling system will be used in the plaza and adjacent spaces
  • The high ceiling space of the terminal will have a conventional air volume HVAC system employing stratification principles to conserve energy
  • High-performance glazing with ceramic frits will be used to reduce interior glare and solar heat build-up in the concourses
  • Locations will be provided for the storage and collection of recyclable materials
  • A two-tiered glycol recovery system will be used for the separate collection of high- and low-concentrated storm water run-off. Glycol and wastewater will be recycled
  • Sealants, coatings, paints and carpet systems with low levels of volatile organic compound will be used to reduce allergic reactions and odours

By the way, while public transport for now means the bus, supposedly provisions were made in this terminal for a future light rail terminal.

You can read more about the LEED certification efforts and green features of the airport here and here. Assuming the LEED certification comes through, this would make the new IND terminal the most environmentally advanced airport terminal in the United States. The city and airport authority should market the heck out of this. I’d even devote an entire display in the Civic Plaza (a central interior space in the terminal) to this permanently. If you google for the Indy aiport and LEED, you already see the city getting lots of specialized press for this. The environmental features are one area the city could attract notice for the design, and so everyone should take full advantage of this. With things like this, the new IPL wind farm, and some of the city’s Sustain Indy initiatives, perhaps Indianapolis can start changing the game in how its is perceived vis-a-vis the environment.

There is an official web page with lots of information about the new Indianapolis airport. There is what appears to be a fan site, including forums and photo galleries you might want to check out. And I also found this cool brouchure.

Stay tuned for future installments.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Transportation
Cities: Indianapolis

26 Responses to “Review: New Indianapolis Airport Terminal – Part 1: Exterior”

  1. Indy says:

    Your article as usual is very well written. I will say that I think we achieved world class architecture given the budget. The $1.1 billion included the terminal, atct and the highway work. Given what other airports expand for that was a bargain. Maybe we didn’t get a Picasso but we did get a Peter Max. Both are artists that any collector would love to own a piece from. Picasso obviously grabbing the higher price.

    We get the new terminal including parking structure, atct and highway work for $1.1 billion. The Madrid project estimated at €2.91 billion. Based on the value of the Euro back in 2004 that is over $3.6 billion dollars. The terminal itself here was less than $500 million I believe. Maybe as much as $600 million. But in any case far less than Madrid. I’m sure we could have built the Taj Mahal for $3 billion.

    We don’t even have to look to Spain. SEA is another example of over spending. Their 10 year expansion project will cost an estimated $4.2 billion. I can only imagine trying to win support for a project that expensive here in Indianapolis. People gave birth to cattle at the idea of spending as much money as we did on the new stadium. I have to give mad props to the designers of IND for giving us what they did without breaking the bank.

    I’m happy with our Peter Max.

  2. Josh says:

    I really appreciate this article, but don’t underestimate HOK. You are correct about most of their work, but similar to SOM and much of Foster’s work this decade – their thin solidity gives them a timeless elegance that few have been able to achieve since Mies. Most opt for overt expressive forms. Also like SOM + Foster, they can be crap. Not the case at this airport.

    I think this is without question the most graceful terminal in the U.S. – much better than Denver or Detroit or Miami – what airports can you even mention – most are crap – though I’m still a sucker for Washington National.

    It fairs well internationally as well – more subtle than Farnborough or Incheon.

    It is true that it gets a little too “normal” with comps of Beijing, Carrasco, but at least its not Jeddah’s which shows that OMA is further moving away from formally interesting to MidEast retarded – or Shenzen, which… what do you say, wow, another web skin on a barely abstract form.

    Fans of elegance and subtelty should praise this airport. Indy has not had architecture like this in a while. Clearly HOK’s best airport work, and much much much better than their hotel work (though its not the worst in the world).

  3. thundermutt says:

    I realize this is mainly commentary on design, but you also touched a little on functionality.

    What’s your read on how it will function as an airport on the outside?

    How do the design cues guide the user and ease his/her experience?

    For instance, the helical garage ramp is a direct analog to the old terminal garage…I know what it means and how to use it.

    Is the standard “departures up, arrivals down” separation in place?

    How will it work to park and pick up an arriving passenger? How big and how close is the cell-phone lot? Is there more maneuvering room and decision time upon approaching the terminal than at the old one? Is there a convenient loop in case one misses on the first pass? Is there good separation between incoming traffic and the taxi-waiting zone, the shuttle-bus zone, and the pickup/dropoff zone?

  4. Adam says:

    In reply to indy and all in general. No tax dollars were used in constructing this. It was all paid for in airport revenue.

    And as usual the article was very well written.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I think it is a very handsome airport terminal. As much as I like “world-classness” in my buildings, airports are one area where I would forego a pound of aesthetics for an once of functionality. I believe the true measure of a good airport is how little of it I have to see – I want to find parking quickly, get to my terminal quickly, get on the plane quickly, and get out quickly. The less of the airport I have to see the happier I am.

    Now, sure, while there I prefer for it not to be a dump, but you know, I’ve rather enjoyed flying out of small, “dumpy” airports that get me on the plane and in the air in less than an hour.

  6. Anonymous says:

    It seems as though we did get a great place! Considering that all the other buildings complement the main terminal design. Would you rather have a GRAND terminal & other crappy buildings along side it? Didn't think so.

  7. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    I do think this is a very strong terminal all around. Don’t get me wrong on this point. Aesthetically, Madrid got a Rolls Royce and we got, say, a fully loaded E-Class. An E-Class is a way nicer car than 95% of the people would ever dream of owning.

    One can certainly debate the merits of buying a Rolls. It depends on your budget, values, etc. However, if you decide not to buy one, then don’t pretend you did. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed of in rolling E-Class, though I feel that for a budget of $1.1 billion, you can do a heckuva lot.

    Now Madrid has functional problems as I note, so that airport is no home run either. I haven’t flown from IND yet obviously, but the city may kick some Spanish butt on that front.

  8. The Urbanophile says:

    Thunder, obviously I have not flown from the place yet. That’s the true judge of functionality. The roadway circulation looks good, with multi-lane parkways all around. Departures is indeed the upper level, arrivals lower. There is a loop that circles you back to the terminal. I found it exceptionally easy to find my way in. The one thing I noted is that the cell phone lot does appear to be in a fairly remote area, at least judging by the exit sign. But I didn’t see anything at first blush that would look like a serious functional problem, but time will tell.

  9. Anonymous says:


    How many years of airport “revenue” will it take to pay off $1.1B?

    The “revenue” comes from passenger fees, landing fees, rental car fees, parking fees and probably a bunch of other fees…all paid in the end by people….some of those fees are actually taxes.

    Noted that DL/NWA is not real happy with the landing fee increases that help pay for the terminal and also help FEDEX expand.

    Hmmm…DL/NWA is by far the biggest carrier at IND…and they happen to have a very large hub in CVG and DTW…

    Anyway, congrats on what appears to be a real nice terminal. It was long overdue.

  10. thundermutt says:

    Urbanophile, “nothing glaringly wrong” is a very good start for a handsome new facility. That makes it better than the new stadium right out of the box.

    I’ll be flying out a few days after it opens, so I’ll get an early look at how everything flows and functions and whether there are bottlenecks. I’ll probably even check out the Green Line to see how well that works.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Considering the strong OD traffic for NWA out of Indy I don’t think there are more important things to be concerned about the fees. NWS looks to continue a strong presence in Indy vs Cincy the most expensive airport in the country to to fly from.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Anon 12:34

    Do not confuse strong O&D traffic with the 'focus' effort of DL/NW at IND. Without the connecting traffic there would be no 'focus'. No 'focus' means reduction in flights.

    How does DL/NWA rationalize a focus at IND when it has a major hub at DTW and a major (but declining) hub at CVG?

    If it can be rationalized, ok.

  13. thundermutt says:

    anon 8:18, I assume you are the same person who keeps raising this "IND's gone from NW" issue.

    I think you have it backward: others have repeatedly demonstrated that CVG has LESS O&D traffic than IND, and that few people fly through CVG from IND…which means that the transfer traffic is what drives CVG and not IND.

    The NW focus here is the OPPOSITE of a hub. It is a recognition that they gain market share if they don't run everything out of here through a hub.

    One (or two) airlines at a time over the past 20 years have made this concept work. Once it was US Air, then ATA, and more recently both SW and NW have taken up the slack.

    This is the "glass-half-full" side of Indianapolis being a major divisional (not corporate) HQ for many enterprises (banks, manufacturers, and logitics companies): lots of air trips in and out.

  14. Anonymous says:


    A focus city is a small hub.
    USAir and ATA did the same thing.

    Will not disagree that IND O&D are strong…but…the O&D alone is NOT sufficient to run those flights at a profit…thus the focus and the connections they afford.

    IND traffic numbers do not discern which of the O&D's are actually traffic that originated somewhere else and then connected at IND.

    CVG has 16M pax; 12M is connecting only.

    IND has 7M….how much of that is connecting traffic? That is what you can not understand.

  15. Jon says:

    Thanks for sharing all the wonderful photos and insight. I’ve been driving by the new terminal almost daily for over a year. I don’t travel much these days but have been excited to see this project take shape. One of the wonderful things about the current Indy airport is ease of navigating the terminal. However, there are several downsides, such as the length of time it takes for baggage claim, limited number of buses to the parking areas, horrible architecture, etc. I hope the new terminal fixes these issues but keeps the ease in place.

  16. thundermutt says:

    anon, I'm smart enough to know that for our O&D to be as low as CVG's, half of the 8 million departures would have to be transfers. And they're not by a longshot; NW has about 25-30% of the Indy market, so even if NONE of their passengers originated here, we'd still have more O&D than CVG on all the other airlines.

    Your argument is pretty weak for CVG, and pretty weak against IND.

  17. David says:


    IND handles 8M (actually < 8M) total passengers/year. 1/2 depart and the other 1/2 arrive. So…that means @ 11,000 pax/day leave IND. Now, how many of those are really connecting at IND? That means they started somewhere else, landed in IND to take a pee, then get on another flight? It is likely that numbers @1M/year. That 1M/year allows DL/NW to focus on IND with more flights than it could support if there were no focus.

    Same is true about CVG but much larger scale as DL/NWA at CVG is a hub…not a focus.

    Also, for your homework, which city (IND or CVG) have a greater proportion of O&D business travelers? (not connecting traffic).

    CVG wins by a landslide because:
    a) It has far more business/industry than IND

    IND wins in the low fare category by an equal landslide.

    However, in this day when airlines are trying to survive…the business traveler at CVG that pays $800 is in far more abundance than the same at IND.

    DL was stupid to ever put a hub at CVG in the first place. The reason…DAY, CMH, IND, SDF and LEX are all within 100 miles or so and all of them skim off what would be additional O&D CVG traffic.

    I am not knocking IND. It has great air service for its size; just beware that it is also vulnerable to the vagueries of the airline business. The 800# gorilla is not CVG…it is ORD…and that my friend is the sole reason IND will not likely ever be a major int'l hub.

  18. thundermutt says:

    The fact that IND is NOT a hub is an advantage both to the airport itself and to the city’s residents, at least as far as the potential impact of one airline’s failure or withdrawal from the market.

    (Who will end up paying the bond debt at CVG when DL pulls out because they don’t need another RJ hub anywhere between Detroit, Memphis, and Atlanta?)

    And all this relates to having an attractive, serviceable, functional local airport…how?

  19. Anonymous says:

    Thunder…you digress

    DL will pay the debt if they move on just as AA has continued to pay the debt at RDU and BNA..both former hubs.

    CVG has more valuable O&D than IND. Period. End of story.

    If DL/NW un-focus at IND…will see immediate 30-40 flight/day decrease

  20. thundermutt says:

    …and just like every other time one airline has cut back, another airline will see the opportunity to grab that market share.

    The world is dynamic, not static. People who fly out of here won’t stop flying because DL/NW cuts back flights.

  21. Indy says:

    thundermutt is right about the traffic. A focus city is not a hub. A focus city is an airport where an airline offers a number of nonstop destinations to locations other than their hubs. The focus of the service is to service origination and destination traffic where a hub focuses on connecting the dots. There is some feed in IND but that amounts to only about 10% for NW. Compare that to places like CVG and CLT where feed makes up nearly 70%.

    I’ve seen it stated before and it is so true. The real money is in origination and destination traffic. There is no money in feed. If NW/DL can keep filling planes here with O/D traffic the service will stay. They have obviously remained successful or NW would not have leased 9 gates in the new terminal. The combined airline will control 12 gates.

    IND has another advantage for the merged airline and that is a good connecting point between hubs where the airline can shuttle passengers to work around flight delays and cancellations.

    NW/DL has an interest in IND. What happens if they cut service here? An LCC will likely ramp up service even more. The last thing NW/DL wants is a huge operation here for someone like AirTran.

  22. Anonymous says:

    That 10% feed (which is in the area of 1M) is what keeps those flights profitable…without that feed…those flights are not sustainable on pure O&D traffic.

  23. Joel says:

    The original tower was designed by I.M. Pei.

  24. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the correction.

  25. Anonymous says:

    Check out HOK’s blog for an internal glance at their design methodologies:

  26. Anonymous says:

    I think the terminal looks fine, not $1.1 billion worth, but whatever. My biggest issue is that they spent so much time and effort on this and then build a puny cellphone lot. If you've ever been there, you can barely get a midsize SUV in and out and it obviously doesn't have enough capacity.

    Another quirk are the terminal markers along the arrival drive up. You can barely read them from your car. White lettering on a clear window?? What were they thinking??

    Again, nice terminal, but when it comes to the basic day to day functionality I think they need to resolve these two issues.

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