Few who fly — or fly coach, anyway — would disagree that the entire experience of air travel from check-in to landing carries with it an overwhelming sense that everyone involved has simply given up. Watch people as they enter airports: shoulders rise, expressions grow steely, civility erodes. Things that shouldn’t be a big deal — learning that you’ll have an on-time departure or receiving a free bag of potato chips — feel like winning lottery tickets, so low have our expectations become.
Now that we’re entering the thick of the holiday travel season and we’ve been groped, scanned, forced to eat a Cinnabon and otherwise made to suffer the slings and arrows of air travel — here’s something rarely offered of late: a positive story about airports.
A newly renovated international terminal at San Francisco International Airport by Gensler Architects is opening this spring and its design aims high in trying to re-set the expectations of a weary (and wary) flying public. With its James Cameron-esque moniker “T2,” it just might be on to something. A design-build partnership between Gensler and Turner Construction, the 640,000-square-foot terminal will feature 14 gates serving the already design-savvy Virgin America and American Airlines; with its focus on sustainability, localism and comfort, it endeavors to make the best of the fact that we are spending far more time at airports and will continue to do so.
Most existing airports in the United States were designed before 9/11, at a time when it was typical to arrive 30 minutes before your flight was due to depart. Today, as Bill Hooper, aviation practice leader at Gensler, says (and we all know all too well), “We all need at least twice that to make sure we get through security in time. Plus, you need to grab food in the terminal, because meals aren’t served on flights as they once were. So we have people spending twice as much time past security, and needing more amenities while they’re there. The things that travelers need in terminals today just weren’t considerations when most terminals were originally designed, so the needs just aren’t being met.”
One big reason those needs aren’t being met is the fact that airports were designed to get people in and out as quickly as possible. Only four terminals have been fully designed and constructed in the United States since 9/11: JFK’s JetBlue Terminal and the new North Terminal at Detroit Wayne County Metropolitan Airport (both designed by Gensler), the new terminal designed by HOK in Indianapolis and Raleigh-Durham’s Terminal 2 (which will be completed in early 2011), designed by Fentress Bradburn Architects of Denver. T2 will be the fifth. While many of the older terminals have made modifications to address the changing realities of security checkpoints, online check-ins and orange alerts, most feel like incomplete workarounds rather than integrated solutions.
T2, on the other hand, is the first LEED Gold-registered airport in the United States. LEED really shouldn’t be big news at this point, but its fulfillment so often manifests itself in ways that make the tangible, day-to-day benefits of its green-ness too subtle to discern, even for those who enter the space daily.
But SFO’s T2 makes the “Gold” designation mean something in this decidedly un-golden age of travel: it’s a terminal designed in part to spark ideas about how people can live sustainably, both while traveling and in everyday life. Gensler’s greening is aimed at a spectrum of airport “users,” from airport employees resigned to a work day characterized by impatient hordes, fluorescent lights and an incessant soft rock soundtrack interrupted by gate announcements, to passengers forced to run the gantlet of TSA security procedures and boarding shuffles that compete with Russian traffic jams for expediency.
In ways both visible and invisible, sustainability is a constant. Hydration stations can perhaps solve the wasteful problem of tossed half-full plastic water bottles by providing a place to fill reusable ones. An innovative displacement ventilation system will not only improve indoor air quality but use 20 percent less energy in the process. And that vastly underused building material known as natural light is here a major design element in the form of new skylights and clerestories, enhancing not only aesthetics and health but also reducing the terminal’s electricity requirements during daylight hours.
“Sustainability is at the core of so many things happening in San Francisco,” says Steve Weindel, a Gensler design director, “so it was natural to take a very forward-thinking approach to incorporate sustainable thinking into the way the terminal is both designed and operated.”
Localism is integral to sustainability, and Gensler has taken the unusual step of creating an extension of Bay Area aesthetics and culture within the terminal itself. Most American airports have a deadening homogeneity to them — identical food vendors, retail outlets and environmental design systems — making the experience of arriving in one place indiscernible from the next. At T2, that’s replaced by putting the destination in context: people will see works by local artists, for example, and will be able to purchase food and wine prepared by local organic producers. Says Weindel, “Have you seen ‘Up in the Air’? We were shooting for something that is the opposite of the airports you see there.”
No firm engaged in airport design and renovation can alter TSA procedures, but they can create environments that make them more tolerable. T2 will have a new area called the “recomposure zone,” just past security — you still have to take everything off, but now there will be a designated and unhurried place to put it all back on, too. Says Hooper, “It’s the uncertainty of moving through airports that stresses people out, so what we can do as designers is to make the environment very clear, and very comfortable.”
Other welcome changes? If you’ve got your laptop, you’ll enjoy lounge- and counter-seating options with places to re-charge electronics, and will no longer be forced to huddle on the ground near power outlets. Parents will revel at the inclusion of well-considered children’s play areas, unlike, say, one consisting solely of a single video screen projecting Sponge Bob cartoons, something I’ve encountered while traveling with my preschooler.
An airport doesn’t need to feel like a boutique hotel, but it shouldn’t feel like a refugee camp, either. “Fun isn’t a word that people have come to expect from airport environments, and we’re looking to change that,” says Jeff Henry, a Gensler design director.
Can fun be had in airport? That security and shopping will continue to define our travel experience is not ideal, but one hopes that with the opening of T2 in the spring, clean air, fresh produce and natural light (not to mention free WiFi) might help.
Note: An earlier version of this article stated that the SFO terminal will be the fourth to be completely designed and constructed since 9/11; in fact, one in Raleigh-Durham is scheduled to be completed a little before that in early 2011, which would make SFO the fifth.