The erstwhile consensus of airports being the definition of sterility seems to fade by the day. Such is the rising stock of the ‘airport city’ concept, hubs today are sometimes as much microcosmic metropolises – defined by restaurants, shops, offices and green spaces – as they are points of transit.

As a result, innovation and sustainability are contributing factors in the design of modern airports; the aim is that passengers should consider time spent within the terminal as an unalloyed pleasure, rather than a burdensome necessity.

Two decades ago, that would have been unthinkable, but evidence of a shift is clear to see. Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, which houses an art gallery, museum and rooftop garden, has come to define the airport city concept; Frankfurt Airport is home to a division of accounting firm KPMG; Hyderabad Airport contains a hospital and university campus.

Airports are getting larger, too. At the time of writing, Dubai is planning to build what would be the biggest aviation centre in the world. Upon completion, Al Maktoum International is expected to see 160 million passengers a year pass through its doors.

The scale of airport expansion in China has also been unprecedented in recent years. On the back of hosting the 2008 Olympics, Beijing has ramped up its capacity to approximately 80 million passengers a year.

Put simply, international governments have gotten wise to the fact that it makes strong economic sense to invest in airport infrastructures, or pay the price of losing trade opportunities.

Changing faces

The opening of Queen Alia International Airport, Amman, Jordan, in March 2013 is further testament to the argument that contemporary airport design has taken on a new face, now indicative of a particular nation’s customs, attitudes and architecture, as opposed to a case of bricks and mortar.

In the case of Queen Alia International Airport, the result is striking. Designed by London-based practice Foster + Partners, the terminal resembles, when viewed from above, a network of dark palm fronds. The roof is, in fact, made up of photovoltaic panels, which generate much of the airport’s energy.

It was first commissioned to Foster + Partners in 2005 by Airport International Group (AIG) and the Jordanian Government. Today, it stands as the biggest airport in the country.

"The commission to design Queen Alia International Airport actually came to us following direct contact from Mawared, the Jordanian Government development company," says project architect and deputy group leader Jonathan Parr. "We were approached to develop a concept that would be taken to the Royal Court to gain initial approval, thus allowing the project to be supported at the highest level."

Located 35km from the capital, Foster + Partners has made a conscious attempt to assimilate Amman’s famous domes, pillars and mosaics into its form. The group also sought inspiration from wider, traditional Islamic architecture – the tessellated canopy of domes that sweeps across the terminal is meant to represent Bedouin tents.

"There was a shared aspiration to create a design that was understated, calm and incorporated natural elements and would be timeless, enduring and rooted in a sense of place."

Furthermore, in response to the local climate – Amman’s temperatures are known to soar during the day and fall dramatically at night – much of the exterior has been constructed from express concrete, its thermal mass absorbing heat during the daylight hours before it is released nocturnally.

"The vernacular traditions and architecture of the Levant region guided our approach," says Parr. "The principles we found closely aligned with our own thinking – there was a shared aspiration to create a design that was understated, calm and incorporated natural elements and would be timeless, enduring and rooted in a sense of place. The design process was a dialogue with the Royal Court, who were keen to emphasis these qualities."

Crusade for change
In light of Jordan’s long-held geo-political status as the crossroads to the Christian, Jewish and Muslim worlds – the nexus is commonly referred to as the ‘Holy land’ -as well as being the Levant region’s primary hub, some would say that the construction of Queen Alia International Airport had been a long time coming.

This ties in with the country’s rising international profile. In spite of its continuing dependence on aid – particularly from the US – Jordan is considered to be relatively liberal compared with some of its Arab neighbours.

It has also been praised by the international community for the diplomacy it has exercised in accommodating refugees fleeing the ongoing crisis in Syria. In light of this, the country was elected to the UN Security Council in December 2013.

Such developments – including a burgeoning tourism sector – are likely to see the country’s air capacity stretch out in the coming years. It is also something that Foster + Partners appears to have taken into account. Queen Alia International Airport is modular in its design, with an ability to grow passenger numbers by 6% per annum for the next 25 years. Capacity, which currently stands at 3.5 million passengers a year, is hoped to hit 12 million by 2030.

"The airport is already undergoing further expansion and development, completing the initial phases and adding more, so the process of a modular incremental development is already in place," says Parr.

"It will assist growth, as it promotes Jordan as a regional hub. The increase and nature of flights currently served by the airport bears out this increase in traffic, which will serve to assist growth as it boosts trade and the exchange of ideas."

Airport specialists
Queen Alia International Airport isn’t Foster + Partners’ first foray into airport design. The office has also been responsible for the aforementioned Capital Airport in Beijing, as well as Chek Lap Kok Airport in Hong Kong.

Closer to home, it designed the terminal building at Stansted Airport and, earlier this year, submitted a proposal to the UK Airports Commission to build a new hub in the Thames Estuary.

Also noteworthy, in 2011, the group unveiled plans to build a new international airport in Kuwait. Currently under construction, the terminal, which takes the form of a streamlined trefoil, will initially accommodate 13 million passengers a year; although, like Queen Alia Airport, further development will see this figure rise considerably in the future.

Kuwait International Airport shares several similarities with Queen Alia International Airport. The new hub’s design will once again include motifs and design indigenous to the region – the tapering columns that support its canopy "draw inspiration from the shape and movement of Kuwait’s traditional dhow sailing boats", according to a recent Foster + Partners press release.

In line with the local climate – Kuwait is one of the world’s hottest inhabited places – concrete is again being deployed for its walls, while green credentials are taken care of through the inclusion of photovoltaic panels on its roof, which will harvest solar energy.

The ultimate goal will be to make Kuwait International Airport the primary hub of the Gulf region, just as Alia International Airport is destined to be the main point of transit for the Levant Region.

Yet, while there is clear evidence to suggest an overlap in terms of the design and long-term objectives of both airports, it shouldn’t be construed that it has simply been a case of modifying a cookie-cutter design template.

Instead, airport design is undergoing an exciting period of evolution and flux, denoted by a need for creativity and new, bespoke structures. This has been further highlighted by the entry into the fold of progressive architects such as Massimiliano Fuksas, who recently finished work on a new terminal at Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport.

The 500,000m2 building, with its sweeping honeycombed exterior, complete with hexagonal metal and glass skylights, is set to bolster the hub’s capacity by 58% in the coming years.

In his 1988 novel The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, the British writer Douglas Adams famously wrote: "Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort."

Much has changed since Adams wrote his withering lament. Airports, much like architecture, are now charged with the idea of conveying social purpose, in addition to incorporating striking aesthetics. While modern design will always have its detractors, the long-term effects for terminals such as Queen Alia International Airport could be particularly bountiful – and far from ugly.