Interiors Awards 2017: Civic/Public

Photography by Joe Fletcher

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San Francisco International Airport, Terminal 3 East
Designer: Gensler
Client: San Francisco International Airport
Location: San Francisco

“Creating a bright, airy, and peaceful experience to alleviate the congestion of travel, this design changes our perception of what an airport terminal can be.” —Jury

The routine of air travel is often anything but relaxing. Gensler had this in mind as it reconsidered San Francisco International Airport (SFO) Terminal 3 (T3) East, transforming its tired interiors into Zen-like spaces akin to high-end hotel lobbies or art galleries. Gensler has worked with SFO on several such projects prior to the T3 East renovation and expansion, which has more than 300,000 square feet of retail and concessions, a variety of seating and dining options, unexpectedly upscale restrooms, and even a yoga room.

For Jeff Henry and Melissa Mizell, both San Francisco–based Gensler principals and design directors, renovation work with SFO has marked their first foray into airport design, and they believe that their fresh perspectives proved a plus. “We don’t think of this as a conventional airport with people waiting on tandem seating at a gate lounge,” explains Henry. “We think about it as a workplace, as a place to shop and dine, and as a place to educate yourself by viewing art exhibits.”

The improved passenger experience at T3 East extends from arrival to departure, providing a calming atmosphere that celebrates the locale while deriving inspiration from cloud formations and the wonder of flight. After clearing security, passengers enter the “Recompose” zone—an area within which they can collect themselves while sitting on hospitality-style benches, some of which integrate planters. “It’s a busy area, but we want to create a mood shift in passengers,” Henry says. “It’s a nice opportunity to sort of hit reset.”

This zone gives way to a soaring space with two large sculptural ceiling elements—their designs based on lens-shaped lenticular clouds—that integrate skylights and indirect artificial lighting. Under this brightly lit umbrella, retail and dining components read as clean-lined freestanding objects. “A big factor is the feeling of natural light, spaciousness, and air,” says Mizell. “How we bring in the light, how we sculpt the ceilings, and the role that the artificial lighting plays are all things that improve the feeling of the space.”

SFO and Gensler worked with the San Francisco Arts Commission to procure several artworks to further enhance the passenger experience at T3 East. A 109-foot-long abstract mural by local artist Amy Ellingson served as the motivation for a living-room-like lounge area with fairly casual seating. A large sculpture commissioned from Ursula Von Rydingsvard marks the transitions between the terminal, an adjacent boarding area, and a passenger exit point. “It’s a landmark, and the nice thing is that you can see it from the nonsecure side, so you can say, ‘Meet me by the sculpture,’” says Mizell.

Rethinking the airport typology norm, Gensler designed the restrooms with high-end finishes, flattering lighting, and spacious stalls that are large enough to comfortably accommodate rolling luggage. “If you don’t get the restrooms right, that’s the thing that people are going to notice,” says Mizell. “Even the lighting contributes to how you feel about yourself. We want to make you feel great!” Extras include changing rooms with built-in benches and clothing hooks, and a men’s restroom features a dynamic ceiling detail that evokes the night sky.

“We’re a little spoiled with a client like SFO,” says Henry. “They care about the interior design of their spaces so they really put thought into them, and that has served them very well.”

Kris Opbroek, a project manager at SFO, concurs: “Travelers appear to really enjoy the space.” And to support that, surveys on guest satisfaction levels on a scale of 1 to 5 are averaging above 4.0. As Opbroek points out, ratings that high are typically only achieved with new construction.

who Architect and interior designer: Gensler. Associate Architects: Hamilton + Aitken Architects; Robin Chiang & Co. Project team: Jeff Henry; Melissa Mizell; Terence Young; Gary Brandau; Nupur Sinha; Jay Wilson; Jason Jones; Ryan Fetters; Brad White; Judy Quan; Bryan Scott; Tom Horton; Tim Huey; J.J. Beard; Aaron Howe-Cornelison; Ken Irelan; Ben Parco. Contractor: Hensel Phelps Construction Company. Consultants: Thornton Thomasetti. Lighting: JS Nolan + Associates. Engineering: Magnusson Klemencic Associates with Pannu Larsen McCartney (structural); AGS (civil); WSP; ME Engineers; Shen Milsom & Wilke; SJ Engineers (MEP).
what Flooring: Associated Terrazzo Flooring; Tandus Centiva. Lighting: A Light; Delray. Ceilings: Armstrong; Ecophon. Surfacing: Trespa; Eurowest; Ann Sacks; ASN Natural Stone; Bendheim; 3form. Wallcoverings: Carnegie. Seating: Fritz Hansen; HighTower; Leland International; Landscape Forms. Upholstery: Maharam; Sorensen Laeder. Tables: HBF; West Coast Industries.