Terminal Optimism

Terminal One of Lester B. Pearson International Airport, Toronto, Ontario
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Arup, Adamson Associates, and Moshe Safdie and Associates

Visitors to Lester B. Pearson International Airport’s new Terminal One building in Toronto are currently confronted with a sublime sight as they gather their newspapers and coffee: the ongoing demolition of the old Terminal One. An icon of post-war Canadian modernism at its finest, the Aeroquay One (John B. Parkin, 1958-64) represented the apogee of a particular model of airport design that was most notably advanced in Europe, and came to influence the design of airports internationally. The origins of that model of the terminal as a singular sculptural object with its attendant transportation infrastructure buried beneath a continuous tarmac, can be found in London, Paris, New York, and in other cities around the world. That model, and its aspirations to architectural objecthood, have largely given way to another model based on the linear extrusion of terminals, whose origins lie closer to home in Chicago. The Chicago O’Hare Airport model, itself replicated internationally, is characterized by a complete congruence between the entryway drive and the terminal building itself, each a continuous reflection of the other. At O’Hare, the automobile is the primary agent of planning rather than the architecture or the airplane, and infrastructural decisions drive architectural outcomes. What is lost in architectural form and phenomenal experience at O’Hare is gained in the strategic logic of infrastructural extrusion, clarity of path, and flexibility for future growth. In its inability to respond to rapid growth in passenger volume and innovations in jet aircraft, the fabulous architecture of Toronto’s Aeroquay proved pathological, sacrificing its own survival in favour of short-lived architectural expression.

While initial schemes for Toronto’s Malton (later Lester B. Pearson International) Airport imagined an extensive horizontal tarmac littered with several cylindrical Aeroquays, the development of the airport and the jet aircraft it serviced quickly revealed the limits of such a system, and the singularity of its architectural aspirations actually conspired against its ongoing growth. This is particularly so in regards to the entryway drive and parking systems at Pearson, which remains, to date, a tangled and increasingly complex cacophony of routes. Among the insights of the O’Hare model, currently being adapted to great effect in the new Terminal One at Pearson, is the primary importance and ultimate durability of the parking garage and roadways, in contrast to the secondary and ultimately disposable nature of the terminal buildings themselves.

By the time of its official dedication in 1963, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (C.F. Murphy, et. al., 1957-63) was the biggest and busiest facility of its kind in the world. At O’Hare, several aspects of the model that Pearson would ultimately adopt were first developed at full scale. The most innovative of these was the telescoping bridge or jetway connecting the terminal with the aircraft, which was paired with the split-level roadway. An innovative entryway system elevates enplaning passengers to cabin level, while dropping deplaning passengers and their luggage to grade. Also significant to O’Hare’s success was the conception of the parking garage as the centre of the organizational diagram, initiating the clear and strategic pattern of circulation from automobile to pedestrian to airplane. This centrality of the parking garage produced short walking distances between automobile and aircraft, through linear extruded Y-finger concourses to the gates.

Each of these innovations, rejected by the original designers of Toronto’s Malton Airport and its Aeroquays, are by now industry standards, as evidenced by their inclusion in the design and planning of the new Terminal One at Pearson. The air terminal as singular architectural object, the model Pearson first adopted, can still be found at London Heathrow, Paris Orly, and most notably in the work of Eero Saarinen, first at Idlewild International (later JFK) Airport in New York (1956-62), and later at Dulles International Airport (1958-62) in Washington D.C. This lineage extends to this day through the work of Paul Andreu at Charles de Gaulle Airport (1967-74) in Roissy outside Paris. These architectural tours de force typically depended upon other modes of transportation between the terminal and the airplane, most notably the infamously exotic mobile lounge or more pedestrian bus, lengthening the time and space crossed by the traveller. In this light, the planning decisions evident in the new Terminal One at Pearson, adeptly managed by an improbable consortium of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Arup, Adamson Associates, and Moshe Safdie and Associates–recommend themselves first and foremost as a forward-thinking return to once-abandoned alternatives.

The new improvements at Pearson include three projected phases of terminal construction (at a total estimated cost of $4.4 billion) and are intended to double the capacity of the airport from its present 25 million passengers to 50 million passengers per year. This expansion is conceivable through two forms of growth: the organic growth of the metro area population, and increased market share as a hub for flights originating from and heading to other destinations across North America. While the population of the Toronto metro area is projected to continue growing at a stable rate of about 100,000 people per year for some time, largely through international immigration, that growth alone cannot nearly account for the optimistic doubling of passenger capacity envisioned in the new facility.

Pearson currently enjoys the largest market share of any domestic airport in Canada, and domestic flights currently represent 40% of traffic at Pearson. While that market share is enviable, it is also unlikely to grow substantially beyond the organic population growth of its domestic population. Likewise, direct international flights to European destinations account for some of Pearson’s traffic, but not nearly as much of its growth. Historically the largest increase in traffic at Pearson has been attributed to lower fares for passenger air travel following the deregulation of the US (1978) and Canadian (1987) airline systems and the subsequent transborder agreement between the two countries (1995).

Approximately only one-third of Pearson’s passengers are changing planes from one leg to another in a hub and spoke system. To increase that percentage, Pearson hopes to compete for increased share as a hub in three markets: domestic, international, and transborder flights to and from the US. Of these markets, the transborder routes have offered the largest growth rates, and the most plausible scenario for doubling Pearson’s traffic is through continued deregulation of the North American airline industry, especially the relaxing of restrictions on competition for US markets.

Following the O’Hare model, the newly constructed Terminal One is organized from the automobile out. The parking garage, itself a significant piece of the ensemble and a work of some quality, begins the architectural experience, and provides the transition from car to interior. Once inside, passengers cross over the entry roadway through sleek glass bridges, between the level of the departures drop-off above and the level of the arrivals pick-up below. This experience of transition or threshold typifies the best of the new terminal, at its strongest in the moments between one set piece of the program and the next. Upon entering the terminal proper, the sectional split between the arrivals lobby above and the departures lounge below is evident through the transition space between the two. While the spatial connection could be more clear, the benefit of the distinct separation of the two spaces is the soaring verticality of the check-in lobby. This singular sun-filled space depends to great effect upon a massive set of clear span trusses
, offering an unimpeded ceiling surface to traverse the room. The structural conceit equally allows for the various check-in, baggage, and sundry signage functions to sit as small pavilions across the vast visual field of the lobby. Once again, a change in materials signals vertical openings in section to above and below, and articulates the transition from one zone of the terminal to another. This particular moment between one space and another provides one of a series of scalar changes through the terminal sequence, leading travellers into a zone of lateral circulation serving as a collector for what will be multiple finger concourses to be built across the site of the old Terminal One. In this zone, creature comforts and commercial consumption abound.

The single extant finger concourse and its attendant security zone spill into a light-filled gate lobby with extraordinary and much- debated public art filling the final of the three sectional moments through the building. These three moments, each anticipated in the sectional diagram of passenger flow through the terminal, are deliberately suppressed in the O’Hare model in favour of efficiency and clarity of sequence. Instead, they are heightened through the use of section and light to great architectural effect, if occasionally to the detriment of intuitive, jet-lagged wayfinding. Ultimately this contrast reveals an irony particular to the modern airport as a type. Any architectural exception to the otherwise unrelenting quality of spatial extrusion simultaneously renders the traveller’s journey more humane, yet longer; more compelling, yet potentially fraught with confusion and delay. Here, the new work at Pearson commits itself, and strikes a believable balance between the loftier architectural aspirations of its previous iterations, and the plausible possibility for flexibility over time.

The considerable financial investment in the newest phase of work at Pearson ($3.2 billion for Phase 1) can be most optimistically read as a kind of cultural investment. It takes funding directly from the users of Pearson in the form of landing fees, and directs some small portion of that money to the construction of public space and public art. The billions of dollars of cultural product at Pearson, paid for by the travelling public, are approximately seven times the total investments in the renovation and redesign of Toronto’s cultural institutions, namely the Art Gallery of Ontario (Frank Gehry, $170 million), the Royal Ontario Museum (Daniel Libeskind, $200 million), Ontario College of Art and Design (Will Alsop, $40 million), and the Canadian Opera House (Diamond + Schmitt, $105 million). In this light, the most recent work at Pearson, including its architecture and public art commissions, proposes a kind of privatized urbanity, advocating a culture of architecture and the arts directly funded by those segments of the market consuming it. In so doing, it renders Toronto a much more desirable destination for tourism or for more permanent migration. Ironically, it simultaneously renders the city a less likely candidate to increase its market share as a hub connecting disparate geography and cultures, as it imposes a relatively high cost to each passenger choosing to fly through Toronto, contrary to other hubs in the region, especially in the US.

Planning for the uncertainty of future air travellers can only be considered a speculative endeavour, another irony in an ostensibly public venue. Pearson, like many North American airports, is leased from the public sector by a corporate entity, in this case the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA). The GTAA is charged with operating and improving the facility, and operates without direct public subsidy from revenue streams in the form of taxes and surcharges paid by passengers flying into or out of the airport. Of course the decision to double the capacity of the airport, and the planning and design work to pursue that goal (begun in 1997) predate the recent downturn in passenger traffic at Pearson following 9/11, SARS, and the downturn in the US economy. In the wake of those events, passenger traffic at Pearson has been dropping in recent years during construction of the new terminal. While most observers agree that those trends should reverse themselves shortly, what is less clear is how long it may be before the design capacity of the new terminal is approached.

Any historical perspective on airport design would recommend overbuilding when planning for uncertain futures. Chicago’s O’Hare surpassed the most optimistic expectations for its passenger volume by at least two decades as early as its official dedication in 1963. Even that growth in passenger air travel was surpassed with the growth resulting from the deregulation and consolidation of the airline industry and the resulting lower cost airfares enjoyed in many markets across North America. This democratization of access to regular passenger air travel, still ongoing, has had the impact of changing the nature of the airport, the populations it serves, and the precise quality of public-private space it produces.

While no one can predict the future of Toronto’s air travel population, it is a reasonable and prudent decision to bet on Toronto’s air travel future. Ironically, the new Terminal One, in spite of its obvious merits as an architectural experience, albeit a half-full one, is presently configured to serve only domestic and international (mostly trans-Atlantic) flights. While this combination represents nearly two-thirds of the traffic through Pearson, it does not represent those markets which can most reasonably be expected to grow at the rates needed to fill its new capacity. By excluding the transborder markets, Pearson’s Terminal One elegantly constructs an image of pre-deregulation national pride; a soaring, light-filled structure populated almost exclusively with Air Canada flights to and from Canadian destinations and some across the Atlantic. While the plan for growth at Pearson anticipates the demolition of the old Terminal Two and the construction of additional fingers extending from the hand-shaped nexus of the new Terminal One, the economics embedded in its operational diagram are less clear. Given that the existing facilities at Pearson were working at far from full capacity even pre-9/11 and SARS, any objective analysis must interpret the decision to double the capacity of the airport as an optimistic combination of boosterism and market-based speculation. Read in this light, the decision to locate domestic and not transborder operations in the new Terminal One can equally be read as the last stand of a certain kind of boosterism, a form of nationalism grasping at the shards of a national airline system and national pride in its civic manifestations in airport design. It is no small irony that the most probable scenario for sufficient growth to justify this speculation comes precisely from the ongoing dismantling of the regulatory and protectionist regimes that appear to be lingering within it. This suggests that the growth to fill up this translucent yet half-filled glass will most likely come from destinations and dynamics that are excluded from its present operation.

Charles Waldheim is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design.

Client: Greater Toronto Airports Authority

Architects: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill International Ltd., Adamson Associates Architects, and Moshe Safdie and Associates, architects in joint venture

Structural, Mechanical, Electrical & Information Technology Design: ARUP

Structural Engineers: Yolles Partnership Ltd.

Mechanical, Plumbing and Fire Protection Engineers: The Mitchell Partnership Inc. in association with Smith & Andersen

Electrical, Security and IT Engineers: Mulvey & Banani International Inc.

Civil Engineers: Hatch Mott MacDonald

Code Consultants: Leber Rubes Inc.

Baggage Handling System: BNP Associates

Lighting Design: H.M. Brandston & Partners

Graphics and Signage
Pentagram in association with Entro Communications

Wind and Snow: Rowan Williams Davies & Irwin Inc.

Vertical & Horizontal Transportation Design: H.H. Angus & Associates

Cost Control: Hanscomb Consultants Iinc.

Furniture Consultants: Marshall Cummings

Construction Manager: PCL / Aecon

Project Management: MGP Project Managers (a joint venture of Marshall Macklin Monaghan, Giffels & Parsons)

Area: 3.725 million ft2 for stages 1 and 2

Budget: $1.8 billion for stages 1 and 2

Completion: Phase 1 completed 2004; Phase 2 to be completed in 2007

Photographer: Timothy Hursley unless noted