Airport offer an architectural paradox. They're some of the biggest, most highly utilized public spaces in the world, seen by millions during busy stretches of time, such as the remainder of the holiday season and the new year, yet most of us experience them in heightened sense of angst/panic/hurry. That means any design or architectural details often escape the eye of frenzied travelers. The airplane experience has lost a bit of its luster since the midcentury golden age, but that doesn't mean airports don't offer intriguing, or at least interesting, design. We took at look at the layout, history and architecture behind some of the nation's busiest hubs and major flight centers as they gear up for some of the busiest weeks of the year.
O'Hare International Airport (Chicago, Illinois)
First Built: 1942-43
History: O'Hare's airport code, ORD, provides a hint about its origins. Originally known as Orchard Place and home to a railroad depot, this area northwest of Chicago was turned into an airfield and factory in 1942 to manufacture Douglas C-54 transport planes for the war effort. Renamed Orchard Field Airport after the war, it was eyed by the city and the FAA as traffic started to overwhelm Chicago's first commercial airport, Midway. During the next decade or so, the city struggled to convince airlines to move operations, designed (and redesigned) the airport to accommodate larger jet planes, and annexed the surrounding area and a strip of roadway connecting it to Chicago (which explains why on maps, it looks like a blob grafted to the larger metropolis). In 1949, the field was renamed after Edward "Butch" O'Hare, a decorated WWII naval pilot. According to an Airways News article, the original designer of the airport, Ralph Burke, suggested a radical radial plan that would see 10 runways laid out in a clock-like fashion, arrayed around a central terminus. The airport finally opened in 1955, and by 1960, boasted more than five million passengers. Construction continued at a rapid pace, as the facility raced to keep up with demand, setting the stage for continued debates over O'Hare expansion that have caused friction with surrounding communities for decades.
Architecture and Design: The main terminal was constructed in 1959 by C.F. Murphy and Associates, and numerous additions and expansions have seen the airport mushroom over the decades. The Helmut Jahn-designed, 1,000,000-square-foot, half a billion dollar Terminal 1 extension for United, an architectural highlight that opened in 1987, includes the famous multi-hued underground walkway decorated with artist Michael Hayden's neon sculpture "Sky's the Limit."
Random Fact: The first pilot to land on the new runways was a Blue Angels flyer who was forced to make an emergency landing on the site in 1953 while it was under construction. He touched down on a runway covered in peach baskets, which crews had used to cover the unfinished runway.
Where to Eat at O'Hare
A film showcasing the 744-foot-long neon sculpture at O'Hare.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (Atlanta, Georgia)
First Built: 1925
History: Currently the world's busiest airport, this massive hub has much more humble beginnings. Built in the '20s on the site of a former speedway, Candler Field, named after former Coca-Cola owner Asa Candler, was relatively busy for its day, taking in roughly a dozen daily flights through the '30s. During the war, the airport became a buzzing hub for military aircraft. Renamed the Atlanta Municipal Airport in 1946, it quickly grew in importance and traffic, with millions passing though the former hangar turned terminal. A new $21 million terminal, then the nation's largest, was built in 1961, and in 1980, a brand-new, half billion dollar "midfield terminal" opened, bringing increased capacity along with a new name, William B. Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport, a reference to another former Atlanta Mayor. A fifth runway, which ran above an interstate and required extensive digging and construction that reshaped nearby neighborhoods, opened in 2006, at a cost of $1.28 billion. A few years later, the City Council added another mayor to the signage, rechristening the facility Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Architecture and Design: A new international LEED certified international terminal designed by Gresham, Smith and Partners, sought to modernize the design and layout of the bustling travel hub with a more fluid shape. It's received mixed reviews, including a blunt Architect Magazine evaluation calling it "one of the ugliest, most unpleasant semi-public spaces" the critic has ever observed.
Random Fact: While it's a self-promotional title, the fifth runway in Atlanta, which handles landings and helps smooth over periods of excessive traffic, has been dubbed the "most important runway in America."
Where to Eat at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport
John F. Kennedy International Airport (New York City, New York)
First Built: 1942-1948
History: Opening under the name New York International Airport, known colloquially as Idlewild Airport (after the golf course that once sat on that site), and then renamed in 1963 after the late President Kennedy, the country's busiest international airport also stands as one of the more admired pieces of work by Eero Saarinen. Architect Walter Harrison designed the initial layout of the airport, and gave each airline the ability to design their own terminals, which led to commissions from some of the leading architects of the day: the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed International Arrival Building (IAB) from 1957; the American Airlines terminal by Kahn and Jacobs that featured a massive stained glass facade by Robert Sowers; Saarinen's gorgeous TWA terminal from 1962; and the now-demolished Sundrome, designed by I.M. Pei, which featured a gorgeous glass facade complete with glass mullions.
Architecture and Design: Despite all the big names who played a role in designing JFK, Saarinen's TWA terminal, which will soon be turned into a luxury hotel, is still considered by many to be a high point in aviation architecture, an abstract, curbed form recalling a bird in flight that's been labeled the "Grand Central of the Jet Age."
Random Fact: The 14,572-foot-long Bay Runway was a backup landing spot for the Space Shuttle.
Where to eat at John F. Kennedy International Airport
Washington Dulles International Airport (Washington, D.C. )
First Built: 1962
History: Built in the '60s to help accommodate extra traffic to the nation's capitol, Dulles is named after John Foster Dulles, a former Secretary of State. Built on the site of Willard, an African-American community that was mostly wrecked to make way for the new airport, the Dulles complex included man-made lakes and and a hotel. The airport was expanded in the '90s, with additions to the main terminal as well as an interior reconfiguration.
Architecture and Design: Eero Saarinen considered the sweeping design of the main concourse one of his best works, a modernist airfoil and cutting-edge design in its day that featured a row of pylons that still recall the streamlined Jet Age. Designed to be expanded, the terminal has seemingly come into its own after updated over the last few decades.
Random Fact: First Lady Pat Nixon helped celebrate the introduction of Boeing 747 aircraft in 1970 by christening one not with a bottle of champagne, but by spraying it with red, white, and blue water.
Where to eat at Dulles International Airport
Los Angeles International Airport (Los Angeles, California)
First Built: 1929
History: The precursor to LAX, Mines Field, was named after the real estate agent who arranged for the city to purchase farmland in Westchester to turn into an airport. It opened officially in 1930, and became Los Angeles International Airport in 1949. In 1958, architects Pereira & Luckman were commissioned to redesign the airport, laid out with two main north and south fields, but their futuristic proposal, which included a glass dome, was never realized. Instead, a Googie-styled Theme Building was constructed on the site intended for the dome, a structure often compared to a landing spaceship that's become a local landmark. New terminal buildings were opened starting in the early '60s in an area west of Sepulveda Boulevard. The airport underwent a renovation in the '80s in preparation for the '84 Olympics, and currently is in the midst of a multi-billion dollar renovation project.
Architecture and Design: The facility, currently in flux with many different modernization and update programs, already has some nice additions to show for all the hassle (and money). The new Tom Bradley International Terminal by Fentress and Montalba Architects features a stunning rooftop that evokes Pacific ocean waves. Additional plans, including a transportation overhaul, should significantly alter the airport over the next decade.
Random Fact: LAX is considered one of the best airports to watch, photograph and film planes landing and taking, especially at nearby Clutter's Park.
Where to eat at LAX
∙ Explore the TWA Terminal, a Pristine Time Capsule From 1962 [Curbed New York]
∙ O'Hare Coverage [Curbed Chicago]
∙ All Hartsfield-Jackson Coverage [Curbed Atlanta]
∙ All Dulles Coverage [Curbed D.C.]