I flew back from Europe on Easter Sunday. I had been there for about a week during what is spring break for most people, traveling in and out of airports inundated by one of that continent’s busiest travel weeks. Everything worked smoothly in clean, well-lit spaces (such as the AGPS Architecture-designed mid-field terminal at Zurich Airport) that at times were even beautiful.
Then I arrived in Atlanta at the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and, as usual, felt like I had landed in Hell. At the busiest airport in the world, almost 7,000,000 square feet of space is both too much too handle and not enough to accommodate its constant inundation by travelers. It is also the single ugliest, most unpleasant semi-public space I have the forced occasion to use.
Designed by Stevens & Wilkinson, Smith Hinchman & Grylls (now called SmithGroupJJR), and Minority Airport Architects & Planners, the William B. Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport—as it was originally named—opened in 1980. Since then, it has added more runways, a somewhat better international terminal that opened in 2012, and some upgraded spaces, yet it remains horrendous.
The core of the problem is those concourses, which stretch on without any inflection or modulation under their fluorescent bath. They are low and wide, and, because there is no guidance, walking through them is like navigating an obstacle course. The waiting areas are cramped and there is no place to form a line. Each of the five concourses is exactly the same, giving you no sense of your whereabouts. As a popular airline hub, you are always connecting, which means marching or weaving through the squished pancake oozing with humanity, descending into a deeper hell where a badly programmed train lurches you (every time I go at least one passenger falls) to your next slog to more limbo time leaning against a putty-colored wall.
I would forgive the airport these functional flaws if it gave something back. The Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris annoys some, but I will say, to paraphrase Philip Johnson’s famous Chartres Cathedral quip, that I would gladly walk the length of Terminal 2 there to find my plane. It is a place that continually delights even as you try to find your way. Even the misguided curved islands at Virginia’s Dulles International Airport are more seductive than this collection of hangars for humans.
Then there are the colors and the materials. The exterior is painted off-white interrupted by bands of a color that it so uncomfortably between brown and red that it hurts my eyes. There are, again, no distinguishing characteristics to the façades. On the inside, all is in a range of putty, gray, and off-brown surfaces that you encounter more often in a bad hospital. Recently renovated spaces replace this dinginess with stone and plastic shininess, taking you from “Healthcare Pre-Modern” to “Convention Center Postmodern” Style. As in every airport, every inch not conceded to waiting is taken up by shops that, because of the space’s cramped and monotonous design, confront you with their garishness in a manner that makes you dream of the restfulness of the average shopping mall.
I could go on and on. Perhaps all of this bad design does have one small function: I would urge every architecture school to take their first-year students there and show them what not, on pains of immediate expulsion, to do.
Ironically, Delta, for whom this is the Mothership—or Dark Star—has been doing more than any airline to create pleasant environments to wait, utilizing everything from open plans to decent graphics to make travel, if not pleasant, at least not unpleasant. For some reason, Atlanta has defeated even its largest user.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is a hopeless disgrace to the idea of an airport. Tear it down now.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.