David Rockwell, the world famous architect who has designed everything from restaurants to Broadway shows to the Academy Awards, has set his sights on reinventing United's terminal at Newark International Airport. To say Rockwell's flair for the dramatic is on display here is an understatement: Working with the high-end airport culinary experts OTG, Rockwell Group has created a blueprint for something that looks more like a foodie theme park than an airport terminal. His plan centers around restaurants that could "compete with anything on the street." And that's just the beginning.
Sexier, attraction-filled terminals have gained traction in recent years, as post-9/11 security measures have increased how much time people spend at airports. Much of the eating and shopping that passengers used to do before passing through security now takes place near the gates. Airline companies have responded by enhancing the terminal experience, with fancier restaurants and other amenities. David Rockwell's Jet Blue terminal at John F. Kennedy airport in New York was one of the first terminals in the United States to adopt such a look (airports like Heathrow and those in Madrid and Singapore have been on this tip for a while). Crucially, these airport improvements are largely geared toward getting travelers to spend more money while they waiting.
At Newark, Rockwell's designers want to turn the terminal's drawbacks into advantages. The challenge is to use long, narrow hallways, currently the domain of moving walkways, and turn them into something memorable. Airport restrictions specify that nothing can touch the ceiling, and finding room for back-of-house operations can be difficult, "You can't attach to the ceiling, you've got a whole lot of egress issues you have to attend to [and] you have to get people in and out quickly," Rockwell says. His plan takes advantage of these constraints to create intimate spaces for eating and drinking, surrounded by outlandish, shifting scenery. One hallway will feature a whiskey bar with a ribbon-like interpretation of a back-lit panel, printed with art by a yet to be determined New York contemporary artist. Another will host a cluster of clam shacks.
The theatrical touches even inform how passengers will navigate the terminal. "The way airports are, it's like a Kubrick movie, every hall you turn down looks the same," Rockwell says. "One of the easiest way to orient yourself is by everything not looking the same." Rockwell's designers plan to use landmarks in each of the gate clusters to help guide people. At a ramen bar, for example, the chef will be elevated on a stage-like platform as he pulls up fresh noodles. Over the platform, a webbed metal sculptural piece, lit from within like a lantern, will rise. It will include an LED mesh that allows the structure to transform from day to night, "like an energy pulse," Rockwell says, and function as a beacon for travelers.
Other attractions include a beer "garden," covered by metalwork which emulates greenery, and a piazza-like cafe area where existing columns will be repurposed to create a vertical park. Perhaps Rockwell's most ambitious scheme for the space is to transform it physically between night and day. The architect says his theater experience prepared him for the feat, but it was still a challenge compared to the conditions he's accustomed to working with. "We felt very qualified to do [this] from our theater work, but it was really challenging, because not only [do these restaurants] have to be able to change, but it has to be able to be done every day in a way that's not going to break down," he says. "It's not like a rave party that's going to happen once." A garage door-like contraption ended up being the fix in one location, where it will be pulled up and down to change the feel of the restaurant twice a day.
This all sounds like great fun, but ultimately going to the airport is still about getting somewhere, not simply hanging around and marveling at the food selection. This is where OTG's expertise comes in handy. One of the less flashy, but perhaps most important, improvements in the terminal will be the addition of 6,000 iPads to the space, one to each seat in each dining facility, and at 80% of gate seating. These iPads will all be equipped with card swipes, so travelers will be able to purchase food from anywhere, and the restaurants will be run entirely by self-checkout, with a crew member stationed in front of the counter to assist. These iPads will also provide flight information, allowing passengers to relax while keeping tabs on the status of their flight. And for those who need to charge up their own tech during their stop over, there will also be 10,000 power outlets throughout the space.
Even Rockwell was unsure what United's reaction would be to his extravagant plan. He says the company loved it and pushed him to think even further outside the box. "We didn't really believe them when they said they wanted this," he says. "We did something that was kind of out there and they said 'Well, we'd really like it to be incredible.' That's when I realized this is really about pushing the boundary of these airport spaces and making them [spaces for] communal food and art."
The plan is already underway—some of the chefs are already making food at popups in the current terminal. "We want to completely change the concept from day one," said Sean Aziz, an OTG representative. The team says the project should be complete within the next two years. If that happens, we will perhaps look forward to flying out of Newark for the first time ever.