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Now Boarding: Fentress Airports + The Architecture of Flight, Denver Art Museum

Curtis Fentress


Now Boarding: Fentress Airports + The Architecture of Flight, Denver Art Museum

Curtis Fentress

Curtis Fentress with model of Bradley West International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport.
Photograph © Chris Humphreys Photography, Inc

Utopian Flights

Today, a trip to the airport means standing in line for X-rays and TSA pat downs. Mercifully, the prediction a friend made after the failed shoe-bombing of December 2001, that soon we’d be required to swap our clothes for some kind of adult-sized government-issue footie pajama prior to boarding, has not come to pass. But if there’s one form of architecture that has come to embody our society’s conflicted relationship with public space – our competing demands for security and for freedom of movement, for technocratic efficiency and for humanistic design – it is the airport.

We’ve come a long way from the days when the simple act of travelling by jet liner made one a citizen of the future. Yet it was once mass air travel that, perhaps along with mass car ownership, seemed to embody the glamour of modernity, the dream of a future transformed by technology. In the early James Bond films, “the Bond theme blares out simply because Bond is going through customs, having got off a plane: a very far from commonplace event for most filmgoers in the early sixties and well worth playing music for,” notes writer Simon Winder. Ian Fleming dwelt lovingly on the sense of luxury, and of the mastery of time and space, implied by air travel: “When the aircraft flattened out at 30,000 feet, [Bond] ordered the first of the chain of brandies and ginger ale that was to sustain him over the Channel, a leg of the North Sea, the Kattegat, the Arctic Ocean, the Beaufort Sea, the Bering Sea, and the North Pacific Ocean…”

It is this aura which Denver architect Curtis Fentress has sought to give air travel once again in the airports he has worked on. His designs for six major airports – as captured in sketches, models, photographs, and film – are the focus of Now Boarding: Fentress Architects + The Architecture of Flight, on view at the Denver Art Museum through October 7, 2012. It’s the latest installment in what the museum is calling its summer of design, the centerpiece of which was Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective. The curator of Now Boarding is a guest to the institution — Donald Albrecht, curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York.

Suitably, the first work that viewers encounter is a video installation, Getaway by Marco Brambilla, pairing film of the aerial approach to Los Angeles International Airport with a cool jazz soundtrack evocative of midcentury America. Among the artifacts of the age of flight, lining the walls beyond, are images of the Jetsons, and a tiny video monitor showing an animated film made in 1958 by Ray and Charles Eames, The Expanding Airport, hymning the design possibilities represented by the jet age airport.

At the media preview for the exhibition, Fentress spoke of how, as a small boy, he would get as close as he could to the crop dusters flying low over the fields, at least until his grandfather pulled him away and explained they were spraying poisons. (This last fact, and the echoes of the famous crop duster sequence in North by Northwest, both suggest our double-edged relationship with flying machines). But as an architecture student, Fentress was told that no new major airports would be built during his career. In any case, airport design had entered what the exhibition materials tactfully refer to as the “democratic” era – the era of anonymous, utilitarian spaces designed with an eye towards crowd control but no concern for aesthetics.

Denver Int'l Airport Interior Curtainwall

Denver International Airport Passenger Terminal, Denver, Colorado, 1991–95.
Photograph of curtainwall (interior).

Photograph by Timothy Hursley

Contrary to the expectations of Fentress’s advisors, at the beginning of the nineties the city of Denver, where Fentress had established his own design studio in 1980, set about building the new Denver International Airport. Fentress had a blank slate to work on – a stretch of cropland and short grass prairie larger than Lichtenstein, well outside the city – and a mayor who wanted something distinctive, like “that thing in Australia” (the Sydney Opera House, as Fentress correctly intuited). Having heard that anecdote, it’s a little hard not to see a faint echo of the Opera House’s white fins in the curves of the well-known tented fiberglass roof of DIA’s Jeppesen Terminal (named in honor of Elrey Jeppesen, a pioneer in air navigation whose company is still headquartered in Denver’s suburbs). The roof of the Jeppesen terminal evokes both the snowcapped peaks of the Rocky Mountains to the west, and the tepees of the Native Americans who once camped on the plains.

Denver Int'l Airport Sketch

Denver International Airport, Denver, Colorado; 1991-95.
Photograph © Ellen Jaskol / Sketch © Curtis Fentress / Architectural drawing © Fentress Architects.

Fentress created the soaring spaces of the main terminal by placing the building’s technological support systems underneath the building, rather than on top, as original plans called for. This move also seems to have helped fuel some of the wilder conspiracy theories that have sprung up around the airport, such as the existence of secret tunnels running all the way to NORAD in Colorado Springs; British conspiracy maven David Icke even postulates an underground complex in which human children labor for mankind’s secret reptilian overlords. Those curious about this aspect of the airport’s story can check out, weekly paper Westword’s coverage, or watch Stephen Colbert’s report . (Just think what anxieties about modernity and technocracy, growth and globalization, these fantasies feed on – what a potent symbol an airport can be.)1

Incheon Int'l Airport Passenger Terminal

Incheon International Airport Passenger Terminal, Seoul, South Korea, 1993-2001.
Photograph of roof line.

Photograph © Paul Dingman / Architectural drawing © Fentress Architects

DIA may be regarded as distinctive in ways its creators never intended, but the idea of an airport as a regional landmark, a gateway providing visitors with their first taste of a new locale, has been central to Fentress’s airport designs. The rooflines of Fentress’s Incheon International Airport, outside Seoul, South Korea, are based on the caternary curve – the curve created by a string or cable hung between two poles – just like the rooflines of traditional Korean houses. “When they saw our building, they saw a Korean building,” says Fentress. The long, rounded form of Terminal B at the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport near Silicon Valley evokes a coaxial cable, while meeting the challenges of creating a safe building in a seismically active zone. The use of wood and the corrugated metal roofs at the new terminal at Raleigh-Durham International Airport subtly suggests the region’s vernacular forms.

San Jose Int'l Airport Terminal B

Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport, New Terminal B & Conrac, San Jose, California, 2006–10.
Terminal B curbside at night.

Photograph © Ken Paul//Architectural drawing © Fentress Architects.

At the heart of the newly remodeled Central Terminal of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is the Pacific Market Place, meant to evoke Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market. Though as a frequent visitor to that airport, I have to admit I never made the connection until Fentress pointed it out. Behind the marketplace is a vast glass curtain wall overlooking the runways. Fentress is proud of the fact that visitors so consistently pulled chairs over to enjoy the view that the airport decided to leave them there permanently.

Included in the area of the exhibition devoted to Sea-Tac is Fentress’s Wave Seat for use in airports. The wide armrests of the beautifully streamlined chairs easily accommodate the modern traveler’s electronic devices, while the curving underside of the chair is designed to accommodate a carry-on bag. It’s a beautiful marriage of form and function, but its juxtaposition with the Pacific Marketplace suggests one of the challenges facing the contemporary airport designer – the visual clutter, inevitably introduced by the corporate chains whose stores, coffee shops, and restaurants fill the modern airport, can effectively render good design invisible.

DIA’s Jeppesen terminal succeeds by virtue of its scale, more than two stories high, with businesses largely restricted to the walkways along either side. While the glass curtain wall at Sea-Tac is a wonderful gesture, giving the terminal a much needed-sense of space and connection to its surroundings, and the marketplace is attractively designed, the structure does not have quite the same impact. It doesn’t help that the Starbuck’s is the first thing you see. It may be a Seattle business, but it doesn’t carry much in the way of regional connotations any more.

The expansion and modernization of Los Angeles International Airport, now under construction, does not seem to have as regional a flavor, but that’s probably appropriate. It’s more or less LA’s job to suggest rootlessness, an unstable present oriented towards an unknown future rather than towards a knowable past. In the video installation I described above, there’s an irony in the contrast between the sensuous music and the sensation of flight on the one hand, and the bland, drab environs of the LAX runways on the other. The scene suggests Oedipa Maas’s first view of San Narciso, novelist Thomas Pynchon’s ultimate SoCal nowhere, “less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts… all overlaid with access roads to its own freeway.” Indeed, for much of the past half-century, airports and their environs became more and more San Narciso-like, hence the contemporary hunger for a distinctively local vision.

LAX is also serving as a futuristic prototype. Fentress has designed the new LAX terminal especially to accommodate new double-decker airliners now in production. Fittingly, the structures’s bold curves and sharp angles evoke the great airport terminals of the early jet age, such as Eero Saarinen’s terminals at Dulles International Airport and at Idlewild (now JFK), and Minoru Yamasaki’s St. Louis Airport of 1954.

Saarinen Dulles

Exterior of Eero Saarinen’s Washington Dulles International, Washington, D.C., 1963.
Photograph by Balthazar Korab, The Balthazar Korab Archive is now at the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Interior of Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal at Idlewild

Interior of Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal at Idlewild Airport, New York, 1962.
Photograph by Balthazar Korab, The Balthazar Korab Archive is now at the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The present exhibition does include photographs of Saarinen’s terminals, but, given how strongly evocative Fentress’s airports are of these optimistic mid-century structures, I wished more space had been given to them. The use of curving rooflines, steep angles, and glass curtain walls imply a link to Fentress’s work. But these earlier structures do not exist in quite the same form they once did. Architectural critic Thomas Hines writes of how time has changed them: “Like Levittown houses, the terminal buildings have sprouted many additions over the years … and the clarity of the architectural packages that were first created has been compromised.”

Some of Fentress’s buildings have already had to adapt. The main floor of Jeppesen terminal, once open space, now accommodates labyrinthine security lines, though Fentress is correct in saying the soaring space makes the ordeal a little more bearable. The empty prairie around DIA has been sprouting hotels and other business complexes for some time, though they’ve yet to encroach too much on the aiprot itself. Incheon International Airport was actually designed to function as the center of a new city, an “aerotropolis” – whether this will make the inevitable growth better or worse, I’d be curious to know.

The idea of the future hovers over this exhibition. A drawing from 1939 shows a rooftop airport atop a high rise at the heart of a modern city in a scene reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with its vision of flying machines weaving their way through a fantastical skyscraper city. But according to Fentress, urban airports are once again regarded as the wave of the future as aviation engineers seek to make planes quieter, faster, and more maneuverable (though I do wonder what post-9/11 New Yorkers would make of it all).

Airport of the Future Sketch

Airport of the Future Visioning Sketch
© Fentress Architects.

Near the end of the exhibition, visitors encounter artists’ renderings of airport innovations yet to materialize. These include the winning design from the 2011 Fentress Global Challenge, an international competition “for architecture and engineering students to present their vision of the Airport of the Future”. The grand prize was won by Londoner Oliver Andrew, for his “LDN Delta Airport,” an ecologically sensitive airport composed of prefabricated islands floating in the Thames Estuary, with a “relaxation forest” of living trees providing a haven for arriving passengers. At their gates, the passengers will board pods, which will then be uploaded into a single vast aircraft in “an act of podisation”. Andrew leads viewers through it here (there are also videos of the second and third place designs). It’s a bold vision, both modernistic and organic; Fritz Lang and Ray and Charles Eames, would be fascinated. It’s hard to know if anything like it will ever be built, but whatever shapes the airports yet to be built will take, they will continue to embody the tension between the future we dream of, and the future we actually get.

1 By the way, however exaggerated some of the tales spun about the building and its artwork, it is absolutely true that giant red-eyed Blue Mustang out front killed its maker, Luis Jiménez, when part of it broke off and struck the sculptor in his studio, on June 13, 2006.

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