Norman Mineta San Jose International Airport

Architype Dialogue presents

Curt Fentress

What was the most difficult issue about working within this building type or the most unexpected challenge that may have influenced new thought in your project?

The area around San Jose is, of course, Silicon Valley – but the history of the region is much longer than that. Once upon a time there were orchards on the site. Our challenge was to combine San Jose’s past, present, and future. We did this by making SJC unmistakably high-tech. Yet the curtainwall permits light to filter in to the Terminal, creating a subtle dappled effect, as if one were walking through an orchard. The combination works marvelously to create a very relaxed, inviting atmosphere.

Did this project expand or evolve your role as an architect and designer in any way? In general, do you feel that the role of the architect is changing on current projects?

Some airport architects focus only on creating a dramatic exterior form. But Fentress Architects has always taken a more comprehensive approach. In the case of SJC, we even developed special seating called the “air chair.” We created an air beam under the seating that provides fresh air to the exact place we expect the passengers to be, rather than having it come from overhead ducts. The seating also contains charging ports for mobile phones and other electronic devices. Between the sustainability and convenience features, we created a unique and pretty remarkable passenger experience.

How is your building possible today in a way that it may not have been before and how have trends in technology and society inspired new thought and solutions? 

Thinking about airports has really expanded in the last two decades. We’re always focused on the passenger experience, which is very important if you want to turn your airport into a memorable brand. There are many convenience features in SJC, but also many other features that simply make it more comfortable and pleasant. SJC is home to many pieces of public art, most of them showcasing or utilizing technology in some way. There’s also plenty of daylighting through clerestories and windows that offer a view of the mountains.

Some of this wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago. Fritted glass, for example, made it possible to provide a lot of daylight without glare or heat. Seismic slipper technology used for the façade allowed for a much more delicate look at the curbside while still keeping the building safe in the event of an earthquake.

In the context of this project, how is your office and design process being influenced by current trends in academic curricula and incoming young architects? In turn, how are current projects and processes guiding the ongoing reformulation and development of academic curricula?

We’re seeing a lot of fresh and very good talent emerging from the schools these days, so they must be doing something right. All of our airport projects, and SJC particularly, have won a lot of design awards and are widely published. That exposure means they set an example for young architects who see just how flexible the form is today. We’ve been honored to have a lot of PhD candidates contact us and study our designs. Airports are coming into their own as a very important typology for the 21st century.

Architype Review thanks Curt Fentress for his interview and for contributing to this collection of Architype Dialogue.

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