Let’s face it—no one enjoys spending time at an airport. Passengers have been forced to accept a featureless space of dimly lit corridors and generic fast food chains, making trips back East or across the globe mediocre at best. But with the newly completed Terminal 2, home to domestic carriers Virgin America and American Airlines, San Francisco International Airport hopes to change all of that.
Ticket counters feature wall-to-ceiling metal paneling—made to resemble wood—by Custom By Ceilings Plus, from which hang Artemide’s Mouette light fixtures; artist Norie Sato designed part of the terminal’s facade. It’s made up of more than 120 laminated glass panels, which change color depending on light and time of day.
Three years ago, the airport commissioned a design-build partnership with internationally recognized Gensler and Turner Construction for a $383 million renovation project to change the way people think about airports. “Our goal was to make T2 a destination in itself by enhancing the entire travel experience,” says Gensler principal Jeff Henry. “Comfort, style, and sustainability were the three most important challenges we faced.” Their solution was a 640,000-square-foot, eco-friendly environment that focuses on world-class art, local food, and shopping—a microcosm of San Francisco.
Two large Kendall Buster sculptures suspended from the ceiling on either side of the mezzanine adorn the departure lobby; the forms, which suggest a topographic map, are a series of flat planes constructed of steel tubing covered in white shade cloth that hang parallel to each other.
Gensler also designed Terminal 2’s earlier expansion in 1983 and faced a unique opportunity to work with SFO again. “Few architects get to build a terminal, tear it down, and build it up all over again,” says founder Art Gensler. The space, which had been out of use for 10 years after the current international terminal debuted in 2000, reopened last month. Natural light floods the ticket counters, which feature wall-to-ceiling metal paneling made to resemble wood, a design element rarely used in airports. Passengers can collect themselves and their belongings in a mood-lit, lounge-like recompose area past security. Terminal columns are illuminated in colorful hues à la Virgin America, and a variety of comfortable seating options—retro-modern egg chairs by Danish designer Fritz Hansen and long couch-benches—make the gate area feel like an upscale hotel lobby. There are abundant laptop work stations and free wireless throughout, plus a station to recharge phones and iPods. The bathrooms feel more W hotel than airport stall and boast Dyson hand dryers, granite countertops, flattering lighting (goodbye fluorescents), and vanity mirrors. To top it off, the terminal’s use of paperless ticketing, preferential parking for hybrids, and energy-efficient air filtering and water treatment systems have rendered it LEED Gold-registered.
The terminal concourse’s restaurants include Andalé, Burger Joint, Cat Cora, Lark Creek Grill, Napa Farms, Vino Volo, Peet’s, The Plant Cafe Organic, Pinkberry, Starbucks, and Wakaba Sushi & Noodle. Retail offerings include Compass Books, Kiehl’s, MANGO, Natalie’s Candy Jar, XpresSpa, and more; Fritz Hansen egg chair.
In addition to sustainability, SFO has a long-standing commitment to art. It’s the only airport in the country to house an accredited museum. “Working on T2 was a natural fit,” says Luis Cancel, director of cultural affairs at the SF Arts Commission. The five new commissions—by local and international artists chosen from a pool of 530 applicants—and reinstallation of 20 works from the SF Arts Commission’s civic art collection elevate the cultural experience at T2. New York artist Janet Echelman’s Every Beating Second drapes the post-security concourse in a wash of color, movement, and light. Her three gauzy fiber sculptures hang from interior skylights and flow with the moving air like jellyfish. Local artist and Exploratorium exhibit developer Charles Sowers created Butterfly Wall, an interactive kinetic sculpture for the terminal’s play area. “There’s an interesting corollary with flight here,” says Sowers. “Unless you crank the installation faster than the natural rate of falling, the butterfly, like a plane, will flutter to the ground.” Much like at a museum, free cellphone audio tours guide travelers through the art on display.
Janet Echelman’s three fiber sculptures hang from interior skylights in the recompose area past security; her use of color is inspired by San Francisco’s history—beat poetry, psychedelic music, and the Summer of Love.
In the space between these two artworks, the concourse offers a variety of dining and shopping options laid out like an upscale mall. T2 houses retailers like MANGO and Kiehl’s, 10 restaurants, a gourmet marketplace, and boutique wine bar and features the first airport dining program in the country to require fresh, locally sourced food. Cat Cora, best known as an Iron Chef judge, serves up specialty cocktails and small plates at her restaurant lounge, and local celebrity chef Tyler Florence sells rotisserie at Napa Farms. There’s also Lark Creek Grill, The Plant Cafe Organic, and the city’s first-ever Pinkberry.
Vibrant tapestries by renowned SF artist Mark Adams, which were in storage for years, hang on the wall in the pre-security meet-and-greet lounge; the children’s play area has interactive pieces by local artists and Exploratorium employees Walter Kitundu and Charles Sowers. Sowers’ Butterfly Wall (the glass enclosure facing the couches) features hand cranks to lift butterflies before they flutter to the ground; elevated laptop work stations come equipped with outlets, and the entire terminal offers free wireless connection.
Hydration stations for refilling water bottles will significantly reduce the waste created by single-use bottles; energy-efficient bathrooms feature a dual plumbing system with fixtures that use 40 percent less water.
From sustainable design to local-and-organic food, SFO has positioned T2 as uniquely San Franciscan. More important, the project sets the standard for 21st-century airport design. Should others follow suit, pretty soon air travel will be glamorous again.
Photography by Keeney and Law