Saint-Exupéry was not a designer, but an aviator and author (The Little Prince). Too bad he wasn’t an airport designer (although he did once manage a desert airfield). Because late last night, I rode out to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport to pick up my wife.
Thailand’s brand-new international airport is an award-winning architectural masterpiece. The AIA raved, “Leafy roof forms protect you from the sun and it provides a beautiful way to get from one end of the space to the other.” It is has been a godsend for contractors, vendors, and VIPs. But no one seems to have ever considered how the facility might actually serve the average passenger, especially after a 25-hour flight.
It was intended by the government to be the ultimate expression of Thailand’s rise as a singular regional destination and economy. Sadly, that government was deposed nine days before the airport opened. Since then, it has largely proven to be an expensive embarrassment. (Pravit Rojanaphruk in The Nation describes the experience in A traveller's lament)
Designing for Compromised Cognition
In particular, you have to wonder if any architect or administrator ever noticed that that high-fashion airports are more traumatic for passengers than bland ones.
There I was, having flown in the day before and severely jetlagged myself, waiting to spot my wife when she emerged from immigration, baggage and customs after her own flight. The arrivals hall is the narrow front strip of the ground floor, at the base of a complex superstructure supporting a glass wall that covers the whole front of the multi-level terminal, as well as the hanging balconies of the levels above. All of the surfaces reflect both light and sound. The waiting area was too narrow to see the arrivals board. The aisles are clogged with taxi drivers who aren’t supposed to be soliciting there and ad hoc booths that were obviously afterthought concessions. Hundreds of drivers and tour operators are waving placards for their fares.
I had trouble spotting my own wife! I think I would have even if I hadn’t been in a compromised cognitive state. The passengers disgorged from a corner door to cross an area that was 40 or 50 feet across with crowds waiting on either side so there was no clear line of sight—and with all the incredible visual confusion and distraction to start with, it was incredibly difficult just to stay focused on watching the door.
On top of it all, I was standing behind two tour operators and their signs, plus some “hi-so” lady whose dizzying combination of hairspray, body powder and perfume were making my eyes water.
As an information environment experience, how do arrivals halls like Suvarnabhumi compare to a Website or corporate portal? Certainly, they aren’t that different from the kind of multimedia, three-dimensional space we’re likely to see when online games and virtual worlds start to shape interfaces and operating systems.
On the other hand, LAX’s bland Bradley Terminal has everyone walking up a long narrow ramp, filing past all of those waiting to meet them. Moreover, they are passing along a plain white wall with only large landscape murals to complicate the visual field. You just sit there bored, observing each arriving passenger one at a time, wondering about their stories, until the one you are waiting for shows up. Then you go home.
Sometimes, bland is a lot better.