In the summer of 1847 an unlikely group of settlers stumbled out of the Rocky Mountains and onto the plains of Utah. Numbering 148 in total – though only three women and two children survived the gruelling trip west – they began planting crops and making plans the very day they set up camp. Within a few decades this unpromising spot, flanked by peaks on one side and scorching desert on the other, would become a thriving town – known to us now as Salt Lake City.

And just as the Mormons made the wilderness bloom in the 19th century, so their descendants would help build one of the country’s most splendid airports in the 20th. Opened on a scrubby patch of grassland as the 1900s dawned, Salt Lake City International would eventually host such luminaries as Charles Lindbergh and Glenn Curtiss, inventor of the seaplane. By 2017 it ranked first for on-time arrivals and departures out of all US airports and boasted over 24 million passengers.

Yet for all its achievements, Salt Lake City’s airport is far from perfect. With a muddled layout and inadequate capacity, it struggled to keep up with a city that has seen its population grow by nearly 15% since the last census a decade ago. No wonder, then, that city officials decided something had to change, choosing in 2013 to tear the old pair of terminals down and start from scratch. Not that the new airport will be a simple copy of what came before. On the contrary, its designers hope that its elegant layout and sophisticated technology could be a sign of things to come for airport design the world over.

City within a city

Ask Matt Needham about airports and he won’t talk to you about aircraft or gates – at least not right away. He’ll start by discussing cities. “In many ways, I think when people go through an airport, they get a sense of the city that they’re going from,” explains Needham, the regional leader for aviation and transportation at HOK, an international architecture firm. “Airport architecture is part of their identification: ‘Oh, this is San Francisco, or Detroit, or Salt Lake City.”

“In many ways, I think when people go through an airport, they get a sense of the city that they’re going from. Airport architecture is part of their identification.”

Matt Needham

What, then, did visitors to Utah take from the old Salt Lake City International? For all the plaudits the airport has won over the years, they may not have left feeling wholly impressed. This begins with the layout of the buildings themselves. Spread over two terminals, it could take up to 15 minutes for passengers to walk between gates – and at an airport where tight connections are common, that could sometimes end in frustration. To make matters worse, airlines like Delta have typically flown aircraft from both terminals, causing confusion for flyers and congestion on kerbsides.

There are more fundamental challenges too. As Needham describes them, airports are as dynamic as small cities. In the ways they funnel people this way and that, and how they boast their own transport networks and supply chains, even smaller airports like Salt Lake City do have a frisson of the urban jungle to them. To extend this analogy further, having two terminals is like building a pair of twin cities, each with its own police force and bus lines. It’s unsurprising, Needham says, that this can quickly create problems.

“From deliveries to loading docks and security checkpoints, all of that duplication is inefficient and requires additional staff,” the architect explains. All this confusion translates into higher costs, which was bad enough even before the pandemic and will prove potentially catastrophic in a year where passenger numbers at one point slumped by 95% year-on-year.

Not that Salt Lake City’s administrators were oblivious to all this. Even a decade ago, they investigated the possibility of renovating the existing airport, adding more gates and generally making the whole layout smoother for visitors and staff. It soon became clear, however, that it would be far easier and cheaper to simply build a brand-new space.


Decline in Salt Lake City’s passenger numbers compared with 2019.

Salt Lake City International Airport

“The underlying goal was to celebrate the natural beauty of Utah. The whole idea is to blur the lines between architecture and art, and at the same time tell a story.”

Gordon Huether

Perhaps spurred on by this blank canvas, the design is nothing if not ambitious. Swapping two terminals for a single, unified concourse, the new airport will also host a new parking area connected by a roadbridge – all at a cost of around $4bn.

Art with heart

Gordon Huether is no stranger to civic design. A veteran artist with over 35 years of experience, he’s worked on train stations and memorials, courthouses and roundabouts. He also has a deep connection to Utah, working on local universities and taking on commissions from the Mormon church. So, in 2014, when Huether was invited to design some of the new airport’s art, he probably wasn’t surprised. All the same, there is a sense that this project was on a far grander scale. “The underlying goal was to celebrate the natural beauty of Utah,” says Huether, speaking from his office in California. “The whole idea is to blur the lines between architecture and art, and at the same time tell a story.”

In a sense, this statement is symptomatic of the new Salt Lake City airport at large. If the older airport was simply somewhere to fly to and from, the new one tiptoes closer to what Needham describes as the aim of all airports: the chance to create great civic architecture. Getting there with Huether and his art might sound strange but, in fact, one of the reasons this revamped design is so fascinating is how it blends form and function. For example, future passengers will be herded through the concourse not via signs or moving walkways, but along ‘the Canyon’, a colossal 362ft installation made from two acres of composite fabric and around seven miles of aluminium tubing.

And just as the Canyon, Huether’s biggest work at the airport, speaks to Utah’s rocky landscapes, the designers have made other nods to the state and its heritage. As the airport from where thousands of Latter Day Saints embark on two-year proselytising missions, Salt Lake City International can be a place of intense emotion. No wonder, then, that Needham and his colleagues designed a special family room for returning missionaries. Located ‘just off the canyon,’ the space includes large windows, letting eager parents watch their kids as they rush through customs. A large map helps returnees show where they spread the good word, while a fireplace gives the whole place a homely feel.

If this helps give the new airport a deep sense of identity, the designers haven’t forgotten more practical considerations either. Finally gathering all the gates together around a single concourse, for one thing, makes it much easier to get around. A light rail connection drops arrivals from downtown Salt Lake City right by the terminal gates, while skiers can easily check their equipment without having to trek over to an oversized baggage counter. Not having to clamber up and down escalators helps too, with HOK careful to keep passengers on single levels. Even the windows have been carefully designed. On the north side of the building, where the sun shines indirectly, passengers can enjoy a steady stream of natural light. In the south, meanwhile, the windows are equipped with glare-busting filters.

Utah, if you want to

Of course, all this makes the immediate travel experience far more pleasant. But both Huether and Needham agree that building an airport with such sensitivity can actually improve the prospects of the community it serves. Given Utah’s GDP has already grown by over 15% in the five years to 2016, the project feels like another step towards an illustrious future. Beyond the benefits it could offer the Utahans themselves, Huether argues that the sophisticated new space could speak to how other airports develop. As a way of luring visitors, he says, there’s been an increasing trend towards creating “airports that are inspiring and monumental, through both the architecture and the art”.

Needham attacks the question from a slightly different angle, suggesting that some of Salt Lake City’s more high-tech gadgetry could soon be adopted elsewhere – particularly as the fallout from Covid-19 has shifted our expectations. The airport’s concession stores and bathrooms are wired up to a fibre-optic network, making touchfree interactions relatively easy to implement in future. Having a “flexible backbone” of electronic equipment, Needham adds, could be useful if airports need to put up new digital signs. Given the continuing uncertainties of the pandemic, that can only be a good thing, especially when thousands of eager young Mormons finally leave lockdown and set off on their missions again.

24 Million

Passengers visited Salt Lake City International in 2017.

Salt Lake City International Airports