San Jose airport swoops into the future
Posted: 06/21/2010 07:00:00 PM PDT
If there’s one spot at Mineta San Jose International that captures the feel of the airport’s billion dollar makeover, it’s at the top of the escalator at the new Terminal B.
Standing on a huge, mezzanine filled with natural light, an imposing three-legged sculpture named “Space Observer” stops you cold. With a camera and monitor inside a turning head, Observer can see and track you as you walk around it. For a while, machine and human dance together in the fleeting zone between trusted security and creepy surveillance. And then off you go to catch your plane. The snooping isn’t real. That comes later.
San Jose won’t have the most modern airport in the world, but the city will have a landmark unlike any other in the country, one inspired by the outdoorsy, sun-loving nature of old San Jose and the technological genius of Silicon Valley.
Actually, some arriving passengers already have seen the new baggage claim area, which quietly opened several weeks ago.
“I fly a lot and have seen some nice airports, especially in Asia,” says Rick Luna, a techie from Los Banos. “This stands up with them. I can’t wait to see the rest.”
He’ll get his chance June 30, when Terminal B opens for general travel.
“A lot of airports around the country were beginning to look alike,” says Steve Weindel, principal and chief of design with the Gensler Architects, a San Francisco firm that asked dozens of ordinary San Jose residents, and public officials
for their input. “People kept telling us they wanted to see two things — the old San Jose and the new Silicon Valley.”
Gensler settled on two metaphors for the entire design. One is a data cable, imagining people as information packets or particles moving through a long tube. The other is a canopy, which Mediterranean towns throw over narrow streets for shade, representing our pleasant climate. The result is a long, metallic concourse that seems to unwind as it leads your eye to a shaded terminal with enough skylights to make you feel almost outdoors.
For $1.3 billion — the project was downsized from $4.5 billion after the economy and passenger travel tanked — San Jose also gets a state-of-the-art, solar-powered rental garage with 3,000 cars across the street from the new terminal.
While Gensler came up with the master design, Fentress Architects of Denver delivered it, through the fine-tuning and the construction.
“It will soon be part of people’s image of San Jose,” says Curtis Fentress, the firm’s principal and design chief. “This will land on postcards of the city.”
Castle in the sky
Fentress says driving to the new terminal would be like riding a horse to a Medieval castle. You see this shiny thing from a distance. It disappears when you enter the forest. Then you’re suddenly upon it.
In this case, a rental and parking garage put directly in front of the new terminal blocks what might have been a dramatic view from a distance. Terminal A doesn’t help, either. Stuck on the north side of the concourse, it looks like just another office building. And poor old Terminal C, a concrete relic, now looks like a Roman ruin. It will be torn down later in summer.
Critics surely will say it was a pity to stick a seven-deck garage in front of a signature terminal, but both Weindel, Fentress and airport officials conceded that passenger convenience trumped architectural showcasing.
A short walk from the three-lane approach gets you into a terminal featuring a 62-foot ceiling, glass walls and radiant, natural light. To move you along faster, the airport can assign any of the 26 new ticketing counters to the airlines that need them most. Terminal B will host Southwest, Alaska, Delta and Horizon.
Meanwhile, your checked-in luggage travels downstairs to the nation’s most advanced and efficient baggage-screening system. Four CT scan machines will take three-dimensional X-rays of bags, searching for plastic and other nonmetallic explosives. The machines can move 1,800 bags an hour.
As you approach the escalator, swooping brown and beige formations in the marble-like floor lead you to where you’re supposed to go next. You won’t see many arrows or signs pointing you this way and that.
“People will move along this building like electrodes in a wire,” Weindel said.
After encountering Space Observer, you will head into the brave new world of security. Four full-body scanners, among the first in the nation to go into action, will take front-and-back X-rays of your birthday suit and anything else under your clothes.
After security, the swoops lead to a long concourse illuminated by 200-foot long skylights and featuring the latest in climate control, seating, Internet access. And more art.
“It’s the kind of light you might see in the orchards or in a suburban part of San Jose,” Fentress says.
You’ll soon see “eCloud” hanging from the ceiling above the new food court. The sculpture has 2,000 glass panes, 8-by-8 inches in size, each told by a computer to turn colors as temperatures rise and fall in real time around the world. eCloud never looks the same one moment to the next.
If you’re hungry, check out the emphasis on local flavor at the new food court. You’ll see some familiar names, including Original Joe’s restaurant, Pizza My Heart, The Brit, and Santa Cruz Wine Bar.
“We realized we weren’t offering enough choices, but we didn’t want more chain restaurants,” airport spokesman David Vossbrink said. “We wanted to bring in a real taste of San Jose.”
OK, so now it’s time to sit down. Check out the 90 “air chairs,” the first in the nation, along the glass walls of the concourse. Cool air flows out from their bases, but it doesn’t rankle the ankles. The air from the chairs meets with cool air coming out of 6-foot-tall vents in the opposite wall. This is new stuff.
Most airports have air-conditioners that blow down from ceilings, which takes more energy and costs more. With the air chairs, cool hangs around longer at passenger level.
Finally, you’ll walk through a jetway to your plane, listening to computer-generated sounds from the flight’s next stop. It’s a New Age, sonic mix of traffic, industry, nature, voices, concerts and other sounds that gives cities a vibe as unique as their skylines.
When you return and drive away, you will feel like waving back at “Hands,” a huge, steel sculpture draped around the seven-story garage. In the same way San Jose treats history, the sweeping sculpture says hello and goodbye at the same time.
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