Why the Boeing 747 is an icon for architects and designers

"Boeing 747 has just turned 50. You may not be familiar with this feat of product design and engineering and yet it is revered by some influential architects and designers."


Recently various media sources have reminded us that the Boeing 747 has just turned 50. You may not be not familiar with this feat of product design and engineering and yet it is revered by some influential architects and designers. 

As an architect, I am often asked what my favourite building is. My mind always moves through a collection of buildings such as Francis Fowke’s Royal Albert Hall in London and Mies van Rohe’s Haus Tugendhat in Brno, Czech Republic. However, I also remember in the early 1990s that Norman Foster, the renowned British architect, was asked the same question. He responded that his favourite building was the Boeing 747.

Lord Foster presented his case on a BBC TV series, Building Sights. He explained his rationale behind his appreciation of the 747, because it was the perfect match between product, design and engineering - the nearer you viewed the details and materials, the better the “building” got.

The 50th birthday of the Boeing 747 reminds me that the Jumbo Jet is truly a design icon. It is not only appreciated by leading architects such as Norman Foster, but is also being discovered by a new generation of design aficionados. Recently Anthony Toth, an airline executive, has installed a mock-up of 1980s PanAm Boeing 747 interior. Here you can also have dining and event experiences (www.airhollywood.com).

I believe that the Boeing 747 is a design icon for a number of reasons. First, it connected the aspirational needs of potential users with the manufacturing prowess of Boeing. Secondly, its new wide-body format created new efficiencies in air travel and this lead to new markets for airlines. Lastly, the Jumbo Jet defined a new approach to the branding of air travel with design, as well as the level of service provided to passengers.

Connectivity between product design and a new user group

What is amazing about the Boeing 747 is that it was conceived through a collaboration between Bill Allen, CEO of Boeing, and Juan Trippe, CEO of PanAm. It was through the synergy between the manufacturer and the key airline carrier that this innovative airliner was born. Allen and Trippe were personal friends and spent vacations fishing together, so the idea was conceived out of informal conversations. 

 “Fifty years ago, the Boeing 747 introduced an experience for airline travelers where the user interface was at the heart of innovative product design.”

Boeing estimates that over 50,000 people had a “hand in the making of the Boeing 747”, including construction workers, engineers, designers, administrators and secretaries. I suggest that this makes the Boeing 747 one of the most ambitious and creative “collaborative” projects ever undertaken.

Together innovation and efficiency create new markets

One innovation in the Boeing 747 was its double aisle circulation. This enabled new levels of passenger occupancy. The size of these planes was revolutionary and the question at the time was – “could the Jumbo fly?” The first Boeing 747s could carry 550 passengers, which was double the passengers carried by its predecessor, the Boeing 707.

In essence, the larger numbers of seats which this plane enabled meant that - “movies were in, and prices were down”. Airlines like PanAm were able to fly more people longer distances, and for cheaper airfares. Consequently, new tourist markets opened up and airport hubs performed better on passengers numbers. The success of these airliners is demonstrated by the fact that over 1,500 were built. There are still over 500 passenger Jumbo Jets in use today!

Multi-layered brands are most appealing to customers

The Boeing 747 introduced glamour to airline design and the passenger experience. The spiral staircase, which linked the upper deck, has been much photographed over the years. Even though you might not be flying first class across the Atlantic, by the mere fact that you were in a Jumbo Jet, you were associated with a new luxury in air travel.

 “The branding of the Boeing 747 was multi-layered with its iconic double storey portion and internal spiral staircase.  It infused a layer of glamour, which had not been previously experienced by airline passengers en masse.”

While studying at architecture school, we often explored the notion of technology transfer from other industries to the building industry. For example, in the 1990s the UK construction industry was looking at the automotive industry for ideas about improving productivity and innovation. Therefore, looking back, Norman Foster’s appreciation of the Boeing 747 was timely.


The Boeing 747 was successful because it connected a new user group with a successfully engineered product. This provided efficiencies that pioneered new markets and ultimately benefited the wider tourism and business markets. Architects and designers will continue to admire the Boeing 747 long after it ceases to be in service as a passenger airliner. It is also certain that these resiliently designed aircraft will continue to operate as freight carriers for many more years. 


The full selection of the featured photographs can be seen at Mike Kelley’s website:


A PanAm Boeing 747 set by Air Hollywood is available for events and filming: