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Creating a Sense of Place

Many airports lack a distinct sense of place. They fail to reflect the culture of their host cities, preventing travelers from experiencing their terminals as unique spaces. By not establishing a sense of character within their walls, these airports miss out on an opportunity to elevate passengers’ travel experience.

We strove to avoid this problem in our design for the North Concourse at Mineta San Jose International Airport in San Jose, California. The city of San Jose is equally proud of its Spanish heritage and its contemporary role as a center for technology. We wanted our design to express these themes and create a unique sense of place that fosters a connection between passengers and the city.

We started by designing the terminal’s front façade as a symbol of the technological innovation identified with Silicon Valley. In our early design studies, passengers were envisioned as particles flowing effortlessly through an electronic cable. This concept evolved into a potent symbol of Silicon Valley’ s innovation: the asymmetrical roof form and perforated aluminum screens that appear to unfold and peel away from the building’s core like the outer skin of a computer cable.

Inside, the concourse has the palpable feeling of San Jose’s paseos (shaded streets). These are shopping streets, where residents and visitors can experience civic, cultural, retail, sports, entertainment, and educational settings within a five-block stretch. Applying this same idea to the concourse, we created a long promenade with a curved, translucent roof. A ceramic coating on the glass sheds dappled light on the terrazzo floors below, giving the feeling of a fabric mesh covering overhead. The spacious, sunlit promenade provides 29,000 square feet of shops, cafes, and restaurants.

Sustainability was another important goal of the project, and the strategies to achieve LEED Silver certification such as daylighting and sun-shading were natural outgrowths of the paseo design in the concourse. Now the Mineta San Jose International Airport is a place where tourists and business travelers alike get a sense of their unique location as soon as they step off a plane. And the facility is a source of pride for the members of the community who influenced its design.

Ultimately these elements yielded a terminal design that celebrates both San Jose’s heritage and its future. That aspect of the airport was highlighted when the project was recognized with a Gensler Design Excellence Award. Sam Lubell, a member of the expert panel that judged the projects, told us he was most impressed with the contemporary interpretation of San Jose’s historic paseos and the exterior imagery that evokes associations with the Jet Age. “All that combined into a building I found incredibly sleek and well-resolved,” added Lubell, who is the California Editor of The Architect’s Newspaper. “The inside is incredibly light-filled and airy, which is an amazing accomplishment considering on the outside it looks like a unified, singular wing.”

Hunter Clayton is a Principal in Gensler's Las Vegas office. He has more than 20 years of architectural experience across the globe having worked in the U.S., Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Asia. Hunter's work on large-scale, multi-billion dollar transportation and mixed-use projects has helped Gensler streamline its processes for conceptual design, construction documentation, and overall design and construction management. He has established a reputation for strong leadership with hands-on design involvement that earns the respect of his clients and project teams. Contact him at hunter_clayton@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (3)

You made some good points there. I did a search on the topic and found most people will agree with your blog.
You really point outed the main problems i really liked the post it is just awesome, The architecture of these place is just nice.
11.30.2012 | Unregistered Commentervilla Tordera
What a wonderful post and a gorgeous design. I am working on my thesis and my topic revolves around Sense of Place in Airport Terminals. Would you mind sharing with me some of your background studies as you designed the airport or even the possibility to start a dialog related to this? Thanks

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