Designing an airport is a monumental puzzle to solve. After taking care of the myriad functional aspects of air travel, architects have generally left little room for natural beauty since the days when concrete runways replaced grassy fields as our preferred landing sites.

“Our basic argument is that the airport sits in a kind of blind spot, culturally. It’s been dealt with in a technical way,” says Charles Waldheim, co-curator of a recent exhibit at Harvard University entitled Airport Landscape. “It’s a site for engineering, but the design disciplines have paid less attention."

Yet he and his co-curator, Sonja Duempelmann, both landscape architecture professors, argue that airports are complex ecological design projects.

Though much of the land has been engineered to divert water and paved over for planes, the open space set aside as a safety measure for landing planes looks attractive to animals--an uncultivated plot in the middle of the urban environment.

Airport Landscape examines the design aspects of airports through the lens of photography and film as well as through case studies, many of them surrounding the issue of decommissioned airports, like San Francisco’s Crissy Field, a former military airfield and hazardous material dumping ground that has been rehabilitated as a public park in recent years.

Rather than try to redevelop decommissioned airports and reincorporate them back into the fabric of the city, many cities are choosing to slowly adapt them into public parks, as has happened in places like Berlin, Chicago and Orange County, Calif.

“I’m interested in a kind of emotional honesty about [airports],” Waldheim says. “They’re not going away.” Rather, we should be thinking about airports as a complex public landscape, one that should be designed to fit into both the city and environment around it.

What Should We Do With Abandoned Airports?

Older airports are being jettisoned for newer, regional behemoths. An exhibit from Harvard's Graduate School of Design considers what the airport landscape might become.

Chances are, when you arrive at the airport, you’re more worried about forking over obscene amounts of cash for a checked bag than what’s over that grassy knoll beyond the runway. The airfields of JFK or LAX certainly wouldn’t be anyone’s idea of a picturesque landscape.

Charles Waldheim, co-curator of a new exhibit at Harvard University entitled Airport Landscape, has a different take. "Our basic argument is that the airport sits in a kind of blind spot, culturally. It’s been dealt with in a technical way," he tells Co.Design. "It’s a site for engineering, but the design disciplines have paid less attention,"

Designing an airport is a monumental puzzle for an architect to solve. Consider how the terminals need to accommodate increasingly larger planes and shifting security requirements, confused tourists and wayward baggage, air control and transit connections. After taking care of the myriad functional aspects of air travel, airport plans have generally left little room for natural beauty.

Yet Waldheim and his co-curator, Sonja Duempelmann, both landscape architecture professors, argue that airports are complex ecological design projects. And as older airports are increasingly decommissioned and, oftentimes, turned into public parks and wildlife habitats, the links to landscape design become even clearer.

Airports have often been built on the outskirts of cities, as was the case in Denver or Chicago, but as the city grows, it rises to meet the airport, which once seemed distant. "We believe airports are more central to the life of cities than they have ever been," Waldheim says.

They also "tend to be fairly complex sites in terms of the mix of species and biological management," according to Waldheim. Airports are frequently built on top rich wetland environments, where wildlife, including birds, thrive. Though much of the land has been engineered to divert water and paved over for planes, the open space set aside as a safety measure for landing planes looks attractive to animals—an uncultivated plot in the middle of the urban environment. Yet bird strikes can pose a deadly threat to aircraft. Thus, airports walk a fine line between managing wildlife, controlling water runoff and pollution, and making the runway surroundings both aesthetically pleasing and safe. "It’s easier for us to describe it as a complex piece of landscape architecture," Waldheim says.

Airport Landscape examines these issues through the lens of photography, like Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s images of runways, and through case studies, many of them surrounding the issue of decommissioned airports, like San Francisco’s Crissy Field, a former military airfield and hazardous material dumping ground that has been rehabilitated as a public park in recent years. It’s an issue faced by cities around the world—what to do with these enormous, often contaminated airfields from the early 20th century that no longer fit the region’s needs. Many cities are now choosing to slowly adapt them into public parks, as has happened in places like Berlin, and Orange County, Calif.

"I’m interested in a kind of emotional honesty about [airports]," Waldheim says. "They’re not going away." Rather, we should be thinking about airports as a complex public landscape, one that should be designed to fit into both the city and environment around it.

The exhibit ends this week at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

[Photos by Justin Knight]

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7 Comments

  • Susan Prestia

    "Hub Bubs" Drone Domes,warehouses for Amazon and others for same day shippers. Please call for design concept,Interior Directions,TWA Teenie Weenie Airlines.

  • DonkeyTDong

    If 100% of these airports were available tomorrow morning at no charge so as to enable development and create jobs, there would NOT be ONE MORE business or job created than if we all woke up tomorrow and things were as before. What kind of cockamamie thinking comes up with the notion that just because a functionally obsolete property or facility exists, it will be magically redeveloped if taxes are abated? Such thinking is social engineering at its worst and most discredited self. Quit doing this stuff. QUIT it. QUIT IT I SAY.

  • Jose Rivera

    In NY state there is a program that allows newly formed businesses to make zero tax payments for 10 years. That being said, if the same program were to be adopted in other states where abandoned airports exist, this would allow many new business to become established faster and allow our economy to flourish much quicker. If I had the ability/means to start an enterprise I would do so immediately

  • DonkeyTDong

    @ Jose -

    Can you tell us all why you are waiting for someone to provide you with the means/ability to start your TACO stand?

  • I rode your mother

    Wow - Now that was a worthless piece!! What do we do with old airports- what ever the local needs dictate (or in this case - use the heading to promote some average pics at some exhibit!)