last week, five proposed designs to modernize o’hare international airport with a new terminal building were unveiled by the chicago department of aviation. santiago calatrava is one of five international teams on the shortlist to complete the project, which is scheduled to open in 2028 and to be financed by airline ticket fees.


below, we take an exclusive look at the architect’s design, a scheme which seeks to dramatically ‘redefine the modern terminal with a masterwork of civic architecture.’ a vaulted, light-filled terminal hall is framed by a glass façade and a sweeping, shell-like roof that recalls the grandeur of bygone travel.

santiago calatrava chicago ohare airport
all images © santiago calatrava



importantly, calatrava’s concept for the site goes beyond the terminal building. a functionally independent campus, which could be realized at a later date, has also been presented as a complementary element to the competition entry. the proposal has been conceived as a holistic ‘airport city’ where airline terminals, hotels, conference centers, and retail outlets converge around a transport interchange with direct links to the city center.

santiago calatrava chicago ohare airport



an early design strategy was to combine the terminal building with the gate’s concourse to create one centralized entity. this configuration not only establishes a clear focal point for the airport, but also allows for ease of transfer for both united and american airlines — located in terminal 1 and 3, respectively. the station’s centralized location also renders the need to extend a potential automated people mover (APM) to terminal 3 unnecessary.

santiago calatrava chicago ohare airport



this approach stems from prioritizing the passenger experience. as a result of the configuration, walking distances to gates, between terminals, and to the APM station are significantly reduced. retail and food and beverage outlets are set within the interior gardens at the center of a grand, light-flooded space, adjacent to all passenger gates. the compact building form, which reduces the building’s footprint by 10% and reduces its envelope by 20%, also frees additional space for the movement of wide-body aircraft.

santiago calatrava chicago ohare airport



the design also references the city of chicago in a number of different ways. the roof of the terminal building echoes the shell motif found on the city’s seal, while a verdant orchard — evoking the early history of the o’hare site — provide travelers with the experience of waiting for their flights in a garden. meanwhile, centered in the heart of the terminal, the APM station is configured as a chicago ‘Y’ — a symbol that represents the chicago river and its two branches.



the o’hare global terminal will house all airport operations for departing and arriving passengers, including check-in and ticketing, screening, federal inspection services (FIS) and transfers services for international arrivals, airline lounges, retail, and dining. all baggage operations — drop-off, scanning, storage, pick-up, and transfers — are located within the terminal. a flexible baggage hall allows real-time configuration changes to respond to domestic and international arrivals and the corresponding FIS needs.

santiago calatrava chicago ohare airport



calatrava is on a shortlist with five other international teams taking part in the competition (see the full list of proposed designs here). the public is invited to help shape the future of o’hare by voting for their favorite scheme here — you can also track the results, and cast a vote in curbed’s unofficial poll here, where calatrava is currently holding the lead.

santiago calatrava chicago ohare airport

santiago calatrava chicago ohare airport

santiago calatrava chicago ohare airport

santiago calatrava chicago ohare airport

section (click the image to enlarge)



project info:


architect: santiago calatrava
location: o’hare airport, chicago, USA
client: department of aviation, city of chicago

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