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This design-savvy airport shows air travel doesn't have to be terrible

’Tis the season for travel dread; at Amsterdam’s Schiphol, smart design proves it doesn’t have to be that way

Schiphol Airport uses a branch-like gate system to gather planes around a single, central terminal building.

’Tis the season for stressful family encounters, last-minute shopping, and, for those traveling by air, the joy of navigating crowded airports during the holidays. Be warned: Experts predict 2017 will be even less joyful than last year.

While 90 percent of the 51 million Americans traveling for Thanksgiving will drive, due in part to lower fares, airline traffic will represent the biggest percentage jump in trips, according to AAA’s travel forecast. Five percent more passengers will brave the not-so-friendly skies, which predictions suggest will be filled with nearly 4 million passengers hoping to avoid forecasts for delay-causing storms.

It’s only fitting this season of stress starts at airports, infrastructure now synonymous not with jet-age wonder, but rather snaking security lines, hectic crowds, and, in many cases, aging facilities. With high-profile examples like New York’s infamous LaGuardia in the midst of makeovers, it begs the question: Can we do better?

The west terminal at Schiphol
Jannes Linders

The answer is, unequivocally, yes. And the answer isn’t just to replicate the glimmering, brand-new airports of East Asia and the Middle East. Amsterdam’s international airport, Schiphol, which was built in the ’60s and modeled in part after Chicago’s O’Hare, still wins dozens of awards and spots on world’s best airport lists, even though the single-terminal structure handles more than double the passenger load it was designed to accommodate, a stunning 65 million every year.

But it’s not magic. According to its head architect, Jan Benthem, of Benthem Crouwel Architects, who has overseen additions and redesigns at Schiphol since the ’80s, it’s all about a consistent, yet realistic, design philosophy. Schiphol actually has even less space in use than the average airport, he says. The key is informed, incremental design.

“Air traffic has grown so rapidly and is so unpredictable,” says Benthem. “The future never arrives, but the present is always there. If you let the design lead with a vision of the future, you’ll end up eventually with old or improper buildings.”

Curbed spoke with air travel experts and architects, including leaders at KAAN Architecten, who just won a commission to design the forthcoming terminal, to discover how Schiphol has maintained such a high degree of excellence for more than half a century.

Lib - Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, Netherlands. 12/11/1985. (Photo by NCJ Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)
Schiphol Airport in 1985, showing the modernist, Miesian terminal building.
NCJ Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Give the passengers power

“I think the best airport is the one you choose for yourself,” says Benthem.

That seems ironic, when you consider that heavy traffic flows, airtight security systems, and the competing desires of commerce, passengers, and airlines make airports some of the most heavily designed spaces in existence. But within those constraints, Schiphol seeks to provide passengers with power, or more accurately, the feeling that they have a say in their experience.

That begins with the core layout. While an airfield of some sort has been running at the field 12 miles from Amsterdam since 1916, the Schiphol passengers know today started with the construction of a large, glass-framed terminal in 1967, conceived by architect Marius Duintjer (with help from two firms, NACO and De Weger Architecten), interior designer Kho Liang Ie, and graphic designer Benno Wissing.

The gray, almost Miesian, structure was basically a big box with glass walls, made to be calm and easily navigable. Bright colors were kept to a minimum, acoustic design kept things quiet, and since the structure avoided the “tunnels and shops” layout of many airports, passengers could in many cases literally see their airplanes across the open passageways and lounges. The broad corridors of light-filled glass walls let passengers follow their own logic. The airport’s underground rail station, which opened in 1995, places passengers right below a large, open central pavilion, Schiphol Plaza, with only thin, exposed tubular columns blocking their views. Despite decades of expansions and additions, all the gates are still technically under one roof.

This openness will carry over to the new expansion, another big box of glass and steel set to be complete by 2023. Architect Kees Kaan, whose firm won the commission, says he aims for “distinguished simplicity, as opposed to spectacular simplicity,” a rational layout that grows from the lessons that already characterize Schiphol.

Lounge 2, Schiphol
Lounge 2 at Schiphol Airport. “Having a bright, shiny exterior can be great, but if it’s filled with shops and unclear wayfinding, it’s a failure as a building and an airport.”
Thijs Wolzak

Design a city, not a terminal

Benthem says this openness comes from his insistence on balance. Give commercial interests too much say in the layout, and the airport becomes a mall. Favor the carriers, and perhaps not enough space is given to passenger needs. By placing passengers on equal footing, he says, he believes the airport has evolved to become more accommodating.

“Solving something for everybody is not as easy as it sounds,” he says.

With his talk of balancing the interests of different constituencies, Benthem may occasionally sound like a local politician. This isn’t a coincidence; he views himself as more of an urban planner than an architect.

“We like to think of the airport as a city,” he says. “Having a bright, shiny exterior can be great, but if it’s filled with shops and unclear wayfinding, it’s a failure as a building and an airport.”

Schiphol Plaza outside of the airport. “We like to think of the airport as a city.”
Jannes Linders

Modern Schiphol has always been seen as, and marketed like, a city, from its early inclusion of office parks to its layout around Schiphol Plaza and generous connections to mass transit. That’s why it’s grown to include amenities unheard of at many airports, including a library, indoor kids park (imagine creating spaces for kids to enjoy themselves, instead of becoming antsy in cramped gates), a regular pharmacy, and even a branch of Amsterdam’s national museum, the Rijksmuseum.

But it is the streets, not the shops, that make the city comparison apt. Just as cities have a clear divide between public and private, Bentham says the main thoroughfares and passageways in Schiphol, its streets and squares, are designed to mimic well-designed roadways. All the flow areas are as straight as possible, with basic guidelines and elements that are recognizable across the facility. Benthem would never put carpet in the hallways or areas with large crowds; that’s a private material.

The signage system at Schiphol was created by Benno Wissing in the late ’60s and updated by Mijksenaar.

The vital role of exemplary wayfinding

One of the most important parts of this design language, says Benthem, is the signage system. Created by Benno Wissing in the late ’60s, the system of crisp typography and color coding still forms the basis of the system today. Wissing was so exact, he banned the Hertz car rental company from using its trademark shade of yellow, since he had already chosen it for the airport’s signage system.

Updated in the ’90s by Mijksenaar, a Dutch graphic design firm that specializes in wayfinding, the results are considered world-class, with the logos and design systems replicated in airports around the world (such as using yellow for gate and departure information signs, and green for ground transit and exits). In addition to vastly expanding the system of iconography, the updated signage includes simple rules to improve legibility and accessibility (for instance, when walking down a hallway, official signage hangs above passengers, while commercial signage must be parallel, to avoid visual overcrowding).

Netherlands, Schiphol Airport, Parking Sign, Wooden Shoes. (Photo by Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)
Graphic designers aren’t always so serious. The parking signs at Schiphol contain Dutch cultural references to make finding your car easier.
Universal Images Group Editorial

The airport continually invests in new solutions to improve mobility and traffic flow. Mijksenaar constantly tweaks and updates the system, and last year, Schiphol rolled out an app that helps steer passengers with the help of 2,000 beacons installed around the airport. It even tested a robot guide, Spencer, to help ferry lost travelers to their gates.

“We invite you to security”

Schiphol may have smart signage and passenger-friendly architecture, but even the power of Dutch design can’t make security check a less demoralizing experience, right? Not exactly. Schiphol has invested considerable design efforts to solve the problem.

The security areas inside the central terminals are designed with careful attention to calming lighting, tight acoustics to reduce noise, curved lanes, and materials, such as ceramic wood and even potted plants, that offer organic warmth. Lofting the security checkpoints in a level above the main terminal near the check-in, and consolidating all checkpoints into one area, as the airport did in 2015, also helped improve flow, remove the need for checks at the gates, and create a more relaxing, passenger-first experience.

“‘We invite you to security, have a pleasant and safe flight,’” Benthem says. “We see this part of the airport as an extension of the public area. Of course it’s still the same process as other airports. But we think it’s more efficient and enjoyable.”

The updated security areas in Schiphol feature organic materials, plants, and calming lighting.
Thijs Wolzak

It’s all about creating flow, according to Jaap Wiedenhoff, an engineer and designer with ABT who’s working on the new terminal. The three parts of the security experience—landside, the security filter, and airside—will feature abundant daylight. With a holistic focus on reducing anxiety, instead of merely throwing up additional barricades, the transition helps further mitigate traveler stress. And, with tests underway on new scanners that would allow flyers to keep their shoes on and laptops and liquids in their bags, as well as advanced tests with facial-recognition technology, the experience may become even more seamless. The airport also plans to introduce a “small bags only” security line after successful trials, giving priority to those with little or no carry-on luggage.

Schiphol hasn’t eliminated or designed away waits or crowds. The airport came under fire earlier this year for long delays. But the major international hub has pushed forward solutions and additional staff to help solve the problem.

Nederlands Fotomuseum; NFM; De Mix; Jannes Linders & Frits Rotgans; Schiphol Slumberland; Koninklijke Luchthaven Schiphol; Amsterdam Airport Schiphol; AMS; EHAM;
Contrails crisscross the sky above Schiphol Airport.
Jannes Linders © 2017 Rotterdam

Relaxation and light

According to Kaan, one of the main reasons Schiphol has continued to be considered an elite airport is that it’s stayed true to its vision of modernist glamour. His new terminal design was strongly influenced by the 1967 terminal and the industrial-looking new Departures Hall designed in 1989 by Benthem.

“This is an airport characterized by abundant daylight, simplicity of space, and substantial spatiality,” he says. “It is particularly striking that materials and construction are so minimally in evidence. Travelers are provided with openness and oversight. The repetitions that define the space—the row of columns, the information panels, the ticket kiosks, the facade’s ribs, the ceiling lamps—all contribute to a calming rhythm. This is the true essence of Schiphol.”

A rendering of the forthcoming Terminal A at Schiphol, designed by KAAN Architecten.
Filippo Bolognese

The simple, straightforward modernist design of the main structures also takes advantage of another natural Dutch advantage, says Kaan. Historically, the country’s low horizons, part of the deal when you reclaim land from the sea, have “helped us see better the subtle hues, contrasts, and colors of the Dutch Light,” he says, part of the reason paintings by the Dutch masters are so exemplary.

Those rushing to catch a flight home for the holidays may not appreciate the colors of the sky. But, as decades of traveler feedback has shown, they do appreciate a clear view, light-filled hallways, and simple touches that make this airport an altogether calmer experience.

A prime vantage point at Schiphol Airport.
Jannes Linders