Saturday, November 8th, 2008
This is the last in a series providing a comprehensive review of the new H. Weir Cook Terminal at the Indianapolis International Airport. Before reading it, you might want to check out part one (the exterior), part two (the interior), part three (finishes and furnishings), part four (signage), part five (the artwork) and part six (miscellaneous, or rethinking the airport as public space).
So we come to the end of our tour. I hope it is clear by now that I really like this terminal. On seeing the renderings and construction photos, I was underwhelmed, and frankly ready to be down on the result. But I was very pleasantly surprised, not just by the overall quality of the product, but the attention to detail and the incredible amount of thought that went into every aspect of the design.
I judge and evaluate everything by the same standard: true, world class excellence. It may be that it’s not always worth paying to get that. On the other hand, if you deliberately buy a lower end product, you shouldn’t pretend you bought the high end. And with a price of $1.1 billion, you should be able to afford quite a bit. An airport is a once in a generation investment and a key facility in shaping the opinion that people have of a city. There is no greater marker of the civic ambition of a place than the design of public spaces and buildings, and transportation facilities are the public space par excellence in our modern mobile society.You never get a second chance to make a first impression, so I think any city with aspirations to compete in the world today ought to put some focus on its airport.
Still, it is almost impossible to create a large building like a terminal that is perfect. There are just going to be tradeoffs and the functional requirements sabotage too much. I’ve yet to be in any airport or stadium anywhere that I would give an unqualified A grade too. So any critiques of this facility need to be seen in that light. On the whole, I think the city did one heckuva job here. This is an airport terminal to be proud of.
Some of the highlights of the new airport are:
- The incredible design integration and design harmony of the entire complex, from the control tower to the interior of the terminal. There is simply nothing I’ve experienced like this anywhere in the world. That’s right, anywhere in the world.
- LEED certification for the entire complex built in up front. They are going for certification on 227 acres. Given that this will be the airport’s sole terminal, it means that IND is likely the most environmentally friendly and advanced airport anywhere in the world. That’s right, anywhere in the world.
- Incorporating post-9/11 security measures into the design from the ground up, which should hopefully render this airport a joy to fly from.
- The jaw-dropping entry into the Departures Hall and Civic Plaza, which creates a grand open space in the terminal.
- The Civic Plaza itself, and the possibilities thereof.
- The attention to detail and quality of design in all aspects of the terminal, including the finishes and even the signage.
- The use of artwork and high degree of design integration of the artwork with the architecture and the use of art as a true design element, not just decoration.
- The overall commitment to high quality and excellence in design, and the desire to transform the image of the city by creating a front door to be proud of.
There are some things I’ve been down on or think should be changed. Fortunately, the vast bulk of these are correctable.
The first is while the overall architecture is very strong, it uses a rather standard modern airport terminal idiom. The main building interior is jaw dropping, but the interior of Madrid Barajas is actually moving. Again, Madrid is not perfect either. And hiring Richard Rogers, that airport’s designer, may not have guaranteed anything. He designed Heathrow T5 as well, one that is extremely similar to the new IND terminal. I haven’t flown from there yet (thankfully), but from what I’ve seen of the pictures, Indy’s got nothing to be ashamed of when compared to that place. Airports seem to be one of the last architectural frontiers, as there aren’t very may inspiring airports I’ve seen, even brand new ones. So I’d rate Indy’s terminal building as very, very good, but not spectacular.
The other items are more discrete:
- The baggage claim areas are a bit dull and need to be spruced up.
- The gate areas are standard issue institutional, and need upgrades. In particular, the gate desks are poor.
- Similarly, the curb side check-in desks should be upgraded.
- The copy-cat “Interactive Passage” art work should be removed and replaced with something more original.
I’d also like to see the IND sculpture finished, which I’m confident it will be, and to see a major exit gateway structure built. I also hope that the Civic Plaza will be utilized as a true public space, not just a shopping mall and food court.
That’s not a lot that went wrong compared to a whole lot that went right.
Obviously the true test of the airport is to come. Terminal cutovers are notorious for disasters, as anyone who experienced DEN or LHR T5 can attest. The airport authority needs to get this right. Also, the true test of any structure is how well it functions. There’s a whole lot of functionality I didn’t scan for, such as quantity of power outlets and quality of wireless coverage, but if something goes wrong here, it will really mar things. As I noted before, Madrid’s airport looks awesome, but it has functional challenges. That’s why they don’t get an A either. So any statements about the new terminal have to be made with the caveat that the jury is still out on these points.
With that proviso in mind, I think there’s a claim that can be made for the airport, and I’m going to make it: This is the best airport in the United States. I haven’t been in every airport, but I’ve been in a lot. And there’s not one US airport I’d rate higher based on what I’ve seen. And for many places I haven’t seen like the new Detroit terminal, I’ve seen a lot of pictures, and I don’t think they measure up.
The best airport in America. The most environmentally friendly airport in the world. This airport is going to be a game changer for the city. It is going to dramatically reshape the image the city projects to visitors and locals alike. It’s certainly a risky proposition. With airlines struggling and the economy in the tank, paying for it isn’t going to be slam dunk. But you’ve got to place some long term bets, and I think the city placed a good one here.
This new terminal is the result of a master plan going back to the 1970’s. The runways were replaced to make room for it, land acquired for a future third parallel runway, I-70 rebuilt and relocated and depressed, and how this new terminal building opened. This was long term planning and long term follow-through. The only clouds on the horizon are the underpowered design of the I-465/I-70 interchange that INDOT is planning, and the question marks around future rail service to the airport.
I think this terminal is the most conceptually and architecturally successful major civic project the city has undertaken in many years. I think is shows that the airport authority people have that ineffable quality known as “getittude”. They just get it. The challenge now is to bring everything else up to that same standard. It’s doesn’t mean you can never compromise, but you have to know that you’re compromising and understand what you’re giving up on. I posted recently that the Midwest has a terrible track record of learning from good examples. Let’s hope this is a different case, and people use the success of this project and facility as inspiration to inform the projects of the future.
Further information about the airport is available in the Indianapolis Star’s special section.