This summer, one of my research projects is concerned with Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, Terminal 1. Looking back at a project born in the new millennium has me thinking about lessons for the future.
Officially opened in 2004, Terminal 1 was designed by a joint venture known as Airports Architects Canada that was made up of Moshe Safdie and Associates, Skidmore Owings & Merrill International Ltd., and Adamson Associates Architects. The 3.4 billion dollar project was, at the time, one of the largest private construction projects in Canadian history. It generated a lot of interest. Months prior to the official opening, the Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA) – who manages the Airport – brought in hundreds of volunteers over several days to stage a mock opening. The GTAA also invited the press. On December 1st, 2003, CBC’s The National aired a prime-time televised sneak preview tour of the building. (Find it here in the CBC’s Digital Archives collection.) In the 13 minute segment, host Peter Mansbridge and reporter Dan Bjarnason presented a story called “The ‘Terminal’ test” about how the new building was ‘tried out’ before the doors opened to the public.
Airports are complex, multi-user, multi-stakeholder, multi-component spaces, and at Terminal 1 there were many spaces, systems, processes and experiences to test. This segment of The National lets us watch as hundreds of “pretend passengers on phantom flights to nowhere” spend time in the not-quite-ready building with fake plane tickets and old suitcases. The inevitable glitches that cropped up during this test run, as well as feedback provided by the volunteers, gave management and staff insight into possible problems that could be solved before Opening Day. It was like a giant product testing focus group with the goal of iterative tweaking rather than re-design.
What interests me about this nearly 15-year old piece of broadcast journalism is that it reveals an empty building being filled with ‘users’ for the first time. The emphasis on testing rather than on pure design introduces a specific set of evaluation metrics. As one staffer comments during the program: “All the planning is fine, but nothing beats putting real live people into the mix.” Crowds of people are needed to activate a building and make its systems work. We watch the behaviour of real people and wonder if the designers and planners of Terminal 1 have correctly anticipated travel behaviours. Where do the lines form? Where are people inclined to wait? Is the seating where it needs to be? Can the announcements be heard? Does the video signage work? Is the baggage-handling dependable? Is the people-movement efficient? Have the inevitable anxieties of travel been reduced? Today, these tests would probably be studied using advanced computer modeling software. Virtual reality renderings could illustrate predictable user behaviour without the need for real volunteers. But what about the unpredictable behaviour that is influenced by the emotional and tense experience of current travel? The benefit of a low-tech dress rehearsal still seems clear.
From our privileged vantage point in the future, however, other aspects shown in the video appear out of place and we can see how spatial needs have changed. For example, we see many shiny-new pay-telephone units being unwrapped in nearly every corner of the new Terminal. Who uses these units today? In 2003, who could have predicted the change in personal telecommunications technology that would make telephone booths (and the interior infrastructure and surrounding access space) increasingly unnecessary in 2018? Given this realization, how can we future-proof the public interiors that under development now? Over scaled way-finding signage built into many public interiors may ultimately meet the same fate as the telephone booth as passengers increasingly rely on hand-held smart phones (using digital mapping technology and personalized user interface) to answer our spatial questions. Or, if autonomous vehicles really are the future, what will become of the acres of parking accommodation that take up valuable at the Airport?
In hindsight, The National tour of Pearson Airport Terminal 1 in its early days is a useful artifact. For the curious time-traveler, it also helps to prompt new questions for public interiors of the future.
Bjarnason, D. [The National, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation]. (2003, December 01). Pearson Gets New Safdie Terminal [Video file, 13:39 min., archive media ID 1751930984]. Accessed 6 June 2018 from http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/pearson-gets-new-safdie-terminal
Gray, J., and R. Bloom. (3 December 2003). “Pearson Terminal 1 unveiled.” The Globe and Mail. Archived at www.theglobeandmail.com. Accessed 17 July 2018 from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/pearson-terminal-1-unveiled/article18439341/