Many people have posited that airports today are what the cathedrals were to medieval Europe. These cathedrals were so much more than places of worship. They were also a way for towns to showcase engineering and artistic skills, along with the wealth of the patrons. Each cathedral had to be the tallest, most beautiful and awe-inspiring one ever built to that day. It was a proud statement by the people that built it.
A modern international airport is often built and measured using virtually the same criteria.
One of the best examples of such an aviation cathedral is Washington Dulles. It was one of the first airports built specifically for the jet age. Importantly, the original terminal still stands as built. It has not been obscured or modified beyond recognition as often happens when airports get expanded over time. It has been expanded, however, and in the process become considerably less passenger friendly.
The sweeping roof soars as if floating above massive walls of glass. It celebrates the excitement of the new jet age. It is considered a masterpiece of the world famous architect Eero Saarinen. Dulles is so iconic that many of the design features have served as an inspiration to or have been blatantly copied by less inventive architects. A great world capital deserves a magnificent aviation cathedral and Dulles is it.
Another great example of a newer aviation cathedral is the Seoul Incheon airport. It ranks as one of the top airports in the world. The architecture is impressive due to its huge scale and modern, airy and highly efficient layout. Incheon is a leading innovator of the concept that the airport is more than simply an efficient way to board a flight or make a connection while hitting the duty free shop. The airport, with its architecture and many unique amenities, is a destination in its own right. Incheon gives the impression of wanting to prove that South Korea has become a modern, innovative world-class country.
Medieval cathedrals often took many decades to build, and sometimes the huge stone structures would collapse mid way. Massive cutting-edge construction is challenging regardless of the era. Berlin Brandenburg airport is a modern-day example of this kind of disaster. The airport was meant to be the calling card of a dynamic, unified Germany. It was to be ultra modern and efficient for both airlines as well as passengers, and the most environmentally friendly airport ever built. In other words, very German. This is not the case. Berlin Brandenburg Airport is currently running at least three years late and billions of euros over budget, and there have been massive engineering and construction errors. This ineptitude has led to major political scandals and is a source of great embarrassment to the German government.
Airport cathedrals are getting more competitive. Emerging economies, particularly the Middle East and China, are building like crazy even if they are not yet economically viable. For better or worse, they are racing to make a statement with their aviation cathedrals: They have arrived.