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AIRPORT DESIGN Last modified on April 26, 2012

Thinking ahead

Scott Bergstrom from the Airport of the Future design team at Fentress Architects contemplates what the next 50 years might hold for airport design.

It’s just before 10pm on a warm Friday night in September, 2011. Many residents of Denver are gathered on restaurant patios or back porches, drinking wine and laughing with friends. But inside the Fentress Architects studio, a group of airport designers are hard at work on a special project, envisioning an airport 50 years in the future. 

Sketches on yellow tracing paper cover the walls, forming strangely beautiful murals that look to be torn from some latter-day Leonardo’s notebook. Futuristic island cities, planes that look like birds, detailed cross sections of an airport shaped like honeycomb. 

The debate tonight is over a strange drawing sent over by one of the Stanford-trained aeronautical engineers whom Fentress has engaged to help with the project. 

It looks like a martini glass with a swizzle stick jutting over the edge. This, the young engineer claims, just might be the future of aviation – a circular, and therefore, infinite runway canted at an angle upon which planes land and wind their way to the center of the martini glass. 

The swizzle stick is a runway used for takeoffs and employs a catapult system similar to those used on aircraft carriers.

The architects and other designers are sceptical. “Passengers won’t be able to withstand the centrifugal force of the landing,” one exclaims to the video-conference system connecting the Fentress offices in Denver to the engineers’ offices in San Jose. 

The engineer responds with a lecture on Newtonian mechanics, the punchline of which is that passengers won’t even notice a difference between a circular landing and a straight one.

The group is known internally at Fentress Architects simply as AoF – Airport of the Future. Two or three times a week, they gather afterhours for a sort of design jam session.

Their immediate goal is to produce a book on what the airport of the future might look like 50 and 150 years down the road – a supplement to the upcoming museum exhibition ‘Now Boarding: Fentress Airports + The Architecture of Flight’. But the team’s long-term goal is greater than that.

“We’re setting up scenarios for what airports, and our practice, might look like in the future,” Curtis Fentress says. “We want to address how airport functionality and design may change. How can airports integrate more effectively into our evolving urban landscapes?”

The team cites evidence acknowledging airports as economic engines for the cities they serve. If this trend continues – and no one doubts that it will – the airport will be increasingly integrated into the city.

Urban airport concepts fill the walls. For 2062, a larger airport hub near downtown is supported by smaller neighbourhood airports. A pod system allows faster flight processing, and folding wings allow aircraft to take up less space. 

For 2162, vertical airports are explored, requiring as yet theoretical forms of aircraft propulsion to guide planes into docking bays. 

The ideas seem like products of eager imaginations. And they are. But even the most radical concepts are reasonable extrapolations inspired by research currently underway.

Drawings by the AoF team reveal certain concepts that come up again and again: airports on manmade water structures, such as islands; airports utilising existing infrastructure, such as bridges; airports occupying repurposed structures, such as the top of the Empire State Building. 
The underlying driver for the team, however, is not simply to envision what the airport of the future could be, but rather what it should be.

The architects’ main focus is how to design more responsibly in the future. Fentress Architects first earned a name for itself 16 years ago with the opening of Denver International Airport.

The design of its main terminal – fabric covered peaks meant to represent the Rocky Mountains – not only shifted the paradigm of airport design, but also ushered in a new era of sustainability for airports. 

Fentress reasserted the airport’s role as an iconic building type, giving new life to the idea that the airport could be a gateway to a region and a good neighbour.

Airports are relative newcomers to the world of architecture. Churches, courthouses, libraries and other building types have been around, in some form or another, since ancient times. 

By contrast, airports have been around for a century. In the beginning, they were airstrips in grassy fields or repurposed barns. The airport made vast aesthetic strides in the coming decades, including the iconic Jet Age architecture of the TWA Flight Center, Dulles International Airport, and LAX’s Theme Building. 

This elegance soon collapsed into the pragmatism of the 1970s and 80s as the sheer volume of airline passengers overwhelmed existing airport infrastructure. 

To encourage more innovative thinking in airport design, Fentress Architects launched ‘Fentress Global Challenge: Airport of the Future’ in the spring of 2011. 

The competition was open to students worldwide and received almost 300 entries. Curiously, when the AoF team looked at the submissions, they found echoes of the very themes with which they had been working. 

Some entries showed manmade islands. Others opted for repurposing existing structures, including a cheeky proposal to make an airport out of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. 

Still more offered brilliant ideas for making airports more sustainable. A student from Malaysia even submitted an entry featuring a circular runway almost identical to the one proposed by the Stanford-trained aeronautical engineers.

The competition provided more evidence to the AoF team that not only were they providing the right answers, but asking the right questions. 

Nearing midnight, the AoF team is winding down. Someone pins the night’s sketches to the wall. Still unresolved is the status of the circular runway. Is it likely to become a reality in the next few decades, or is it just another concept, a flight of fancy that will never see the light of day? 
The team is uncertain, but pins it to the wall anyway. “It’ll be a reminder that it’s our job to think outside the parameters of what the world is used to,” says Fentress CEO, Agatha Kessler.
“A reminder that whatever form the airport of the future takes, we’ll be there, ready to design it.”


Fentress: Design competition

A space-age London airport featuring hypersonic jets, vertical take-offs and a number of unique public transport elements has won top prize in an international competition to design the ‘airport of the future’.

The winning design for LDN Delta Airport – a futuristic gateway built in the Thames Estuary – was conceived by architecture student Oliver Andrew, from London’s Southbank University, and beat 200 other submissions from students around the world in the competition organised by Fentress Architects.

The 2011 Fentress Global Challenge is an international competition for architecture and engineering students to present their visions for the ‘airport of the future’.

The judging panel narrowed the 200 entrants to just 16 finalists, and then down to the top three with two honourable mentions.

Speaking exclusively to Airport World, Fentress said Andrew was awarded the accolade for his design’s “creative approach, response to site, sustainability and functionality”.

The LDN Delta Airport has been designed as a number of prefabricated, mass-produced islands situated in the Thames Estuary, upstream from London.

The idea is that the airport would be free from the overcrowding of other airports as there would be no cars, runways, nor check-in desks, but will be served solely by public transport.

Meanwhile, without runways, the airport would support vertical takeoff with hypersonic jets capable of flying at the edge of space.

The jets will “lift off” from purpose-built landing pads and use the tidal currents in the Thames Estuary to run on completely sustainable power.

Flight information will be sent to passengers on their mobile phones including departure times and their assigned gate.

Curtis Fentress, president and principal-in-charge of design at Fentress Architects, said: “This student’s approach captured the challenging elements necessary for a successful airport in the future, including multimodal transportation, conscientious design, and social considerations.”

While Hardy Acree, airport director at Sacramento International Airport, and member of the judging panel, said: “This airport proposed two vital elements: unmanned aerial vehicle elements, since future aircraft will rely heavily on technology to control airline cost, and vertical takeoff and landing capability, which reduce the airport landmass footprint.”
Andrew will be awarded the top prize valued at $10,000, including $3,000 cash and a paid internship at Fentress Architects this summer.

In second place was University College London student Martin Sztyk’s design for a self-sustaining coastal airport built next to an oil refinery producing biofuel from algae, while third spot was taken by Alexander Nevarez – a student at the Art Center Collage of Design in the US – who envisages “pocket airports” served by vertical take-off and landing aircraft built on the rooftops of skyscrapers.

The judging panel were complimentary about both designs. Talking about Sztyk’s vision, the Design Future Council’s co-founder and chairman, James Cramer, said: “The airport of the future shows how a self-sustaining concept can become ubiquitous with broad implications for seaside developments.”

Marvin Malecha, Dean of the College of Design at North Carolina State University, added: “This is a strong scheme with vital emotional and intellectual connections to the land. The drawings present an elegant structure that has the ability to grow and change; open spaces complement architecture that seems to sit easily on its landscape.”

Nevarez’s design also drew some interesting comments from the judges, Curtis Fentress, remarking: “This is a strong vision of what aviation could look like 150 years from now. By utilising existing infrastructure, this student improves the passenger experience, allows faster travel time, and frees up valuable land to use for other purposes.”
Oliver Andrew said: “Taking part in this competition has been fantastic from the moment I read the brief to the moment I put pencil to paper.

“I spent many long nights sketching and thinking the concept through, in order to create something innovative and revolutionary
in airport design.

“My concept goes beyond today’s airport design to propose a pioneering ecological solution for the future.”


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