Normally, San Jose is not a place that fosters architectural quality. But when planning began for its Norman Y. Mineta Airport (SJC), city leaders sensed an opportunity for extraordinary design. Ralph Tonseth, then-Director of Aviation, thought this would benefit the whole city, not just airlines and passengers. He wanted, he said, a design so striking that people would argue about it in bars.
All images COURTESY gensler
While San Jose is America’s tenth-largest city, its airport ranks only 41st in passenger count. And in spite of being Silicon Valley’s airfield, SJC has a Casablanca quaintness, where some flights are boarded by leaving the terminal building, strolling on the tarmac, and climbing a portable stair to the plane door.
But that’s changing rapidly under a modernization program that will double the facility’s square footage, rationalize an ad-hoc functional and circulation pattern, and present a far more polished face to the world. When completed next year, this $1.3 billion project will appear resolved and effortless, belying an administratively complex gestation and challenging fast-track implementation. Gensler’s San Francisco office and local firm Steinberg Architects were master plan architects and designers of the Terminal B concourse, whose first section just opened on July 15. The terminal itself is being carried out by Fentress Architects and Hensel Phelps construction. That part of the project, which includes an immense 3,350-space garage, will open next year.
The current Terminal B Concourse is the central 1,600-foot portion of a 3,500-foot linear scheme that could eventually extend more than a mile if the demand warrants. This linearity, rare in airports of this scale, reflects a tight site hemmed in by a city boundary on one side and the Guadalupe River on the other. It also suggested a design approach: a long rounded extrusion with an elegant curvilinear public exterior face symbolizing a communications cable whose outer layers have been irregularly and expressively sliced and partly peeled away.
Inside, the extrusion is even more consistent. The 90-foot-wide concourse is a dramatic hall of light formed by a convex east wall, a clerestory, a convex glass roof/ceiling, an outwardly slanting interior colonnade, and sweeping window walls with dramatic views of the airfield to the west.
In recent years, traffic has been declining, but the expansion is still needed and welcome. Even before the Transportation Security Administration’s colonization of public space for its screening processes, SJC was cramped and inefficient. And after 9/11, security lines often spilled out of the main hall. The current modernizations will decrease the number of flight gates, until traffic growth triggers a final expansion, while increasing floor space. Terminal A is gaining long-needed space for concessions, circulation, screening, baggage handling, and curbside check-in, and naturally the Terminal B components are being built to comfortable space standards.
Technical advances will allow shared use of airline gates and counters, creating efficiencies and flexibility. The new construction is LEED certified, and features generous day-lighting, integral solar shading, and a low-speed, high volume ventilation system. An ambitious tech-themed public art program will be in place at project completion next year.
When the project was initiated, then-mayor Ron Gonzalez had clear ambitious for the airport, seeking an iconic building that conferred a sense of place and arrival that would represent San Jose the way that the Sydney Opera House embodied its city. Since then, budget deficits have led the city to trade vision for caution, but the project still stands as a testament to more aspiring, budget-rich days.