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Norman Foster on Taking the Torture Out of Flying

The British starchitect believes airports should quicken the pulse as well as soothe.


Photographer: Ma Wenxiao

Cities have leveled mountains and dredged harbors for architect Lord Norman Foster and his airports. His firm, Foster + Partners, has designed them for Beijing, Hong Kong, London, Panama City, and Amman, Jordan. Soon the firm—which also recently designed the London headquarters of Bloomberg LP—will add Mexico City to its list of air terminals. That hub, conceived in partnership with the Mexican architect Fernando Romero, isn’t scheduled to be completed until 2020, but the renderings adorning kiosks in the existing airport show a building that resembles a spaceship. It will be a feat of engineering: The largest space under its Buckminster Fuller-esque glass ceiling spans more than 170 meters, or 558 feet.

Reached by phone in Madrid, Foster talked with Bloomberg’s James Tarmy about what separates a good airport from a bad one and, more important, what travelers can expect from the airport of the future.
What do you want out of an airport?
Traveling is a kind of tense affair. It quickens the pulse—and, statistically, the incidence of heart attacks is high in airports. Anything that makes that experience more delightful and more relaxing, more calming and more pleasurable, is in that sense the goal.
How is that achieved?
Why don’t I start with the first airport I was asked to do [Stansted, England, completed in 1991]. The guy who handed out contracts at the British Airports Authority, an engineer named Norman Payne, said, “Just thinking about a new generation of airports: If you had a clean sheet of paper, what would you do?” And so I said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could see the sky and had natural light? And wouldn’t it be great if you could see if it was cloudy or rainy or the sun was shining?
Seems uncontroversial.
Airports are deep and not very permeable. They rely on a blind man’s bluff to guide you. But what if you could see the scenery outside? In an ideal airport, you move through it seamlessly—it’s navigable, and it’s intuitive.