Taking Flight: N.C. State’s Airport Design

by J. Michael Welton

In early August, a team of students from a high-level studio at N.C. State’s College of Design won one of the world’s more coveted architecture awards. With guidance from their professor, architect/structural engineer Dr. Wayne Place—and direct input from Curt Fentress, one of the nation’s premiere airport architects—these 11 students won the European Cultural Centre’s “ECC Architecture University Project Award 2018.”    

It’s the result of their work on proposed airports around the globe, presented at an exhibition at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. The students prepared for the exhibition during an intense semester of all-night sessions, video production, and long-distance teleconferencing.

That they won the prize is nothing short of astonishing. The Biennale is the most important global architectural event, attracting exhibitors from design’s upper echelons. For a first-time team to exhibit its work—and triumph over others from Europe, Asia, and America—demonstrates the breadth and depth of their understanding of airport design.

“It’s a great honor because it’s a worldwide stage,” says David Hill, head of the N.C. State’s school of architecture, who attended the exhibit’s opening with Place, Fentress, and Mark Hoversten, dean of the College of Design. “To be recognized by other institutions and colleges is huge.”

“I could only hope we could do a good enough job with the exhibit that it would win,” says Ana-Maria Drughi, an associate in Fentress’ office who served as liaison to the students. “It came down to this great finale that’s also a beginning—recognition that the students and N.C. State are going in the right direction.”

History of the studio

The studio, exhibit, and award are not one-hit wonders. Rather, they’re the culmination of ongoing efforts that started five years ago. “We had some students interested in airports for their final project, and I was their advisor for that,” Place says. “Curt Fentress saw their work and hired two of them—and that became the nucleus for the studio.”

Fentress is a 1972 N.C. State graduate whose thesis addressed airport design. He’s worked in New York with well-known firms like Pei Cobb Freed & Partners and KPF. After designing a 36-story tall building in Colorado, he struck out on his own. He designed the Denver Convention Center, and then in 1995, the white, tent-like roofline that protects his Denver International Airport—a distinct reference to the distant, snow-covered Rockies. Other airports followed, including one in South Korea, and Terminal C at RDU. His work is highly sought-after.

Still, he makes time for the studio at N.C. State. “He’s really crucial to the students—it’s unbelievably important to meet someone so successful,” says Place. “He’s down-to-earth, very humble and constantly thinking about how many opportunities there are in the world, and how students can position themselves to take advantage of those opportunities.”

Fentress kicks off the studio every semester, flying in from Denver to discuss airport design. He returns three times—including final presentations. Drughi and another N.C. State alumnus at his firm teleconference in, guiding students through the development of airports for specific sites.

Videos are the medium of choice. “When Curt came in on the first day, he did nothing but present videos—he said you can’t get a major airport job without them,” Place says. “He does three—the first is on the culture of the place, the second is on the general concept of the building, and the third is on design, security, way-finding and expressing space to get a sense of what the experience will be like.”

Evolution of Airport Design

Airports are one of the fastest-growing building types of the past century—and their design and construction are accelerating. They’re not only transportation hubs, but public buildings too. “People spend a lot more time in airports than they used to—once you get through security, there are opportunities for food, shopping and fine dining,” Fentress says. “There are face-to-face meetings and conferences for training—you can fly into an airport and take a class.”

He opens up his experiences to students. “It’s about showing a project we’ve done and giving the back-story of how it happened—how the design came about—and interaction with the client,” he says. “They’re able to ask questions—they’re inquisitive and they’re fascinated with this building type that’s relatively new.” Dean Hoversten sees huge potential for changes in airport design. “It used to be you’d get your ticket and wait, but there’s been a big evolution—it’s a multi-use place today,” he says. “The future is about drive-through loading and unloading, and there will be the reintroduction of supersonic jets, and vertical takeoff, with mini-airports on top of skyscrapers.”

During the studio, the students also learn about how future airports can interact with local communities. “We began to think of an airport as a public space that can bring people to it—even on a Friday night for bowling, a movie, a museum and shopping,” says studio member Cameron Westbrook. For a proposed Madagascar airport, Rosa McDonald’s team proposed an open civic space to take advantage of a climate dominated by trade winds from the Indian Ocean. They suggested a garden at its center, with flora, fauna, and natural ventilation. “It’s designed to be open for visitors, to be part of cultural activities, with security closer to the boarding area,” she says. “We brought the rainforest inside, with columns open to the outside, which draws fresh air in—and there’s rainwater collection.”

A win/win/win

With the award, the College of Design earns instant recognition and prestige worldwide. Its students add an elite, permanent achievement to their resumes. And Fentress, the architect who charges State nothing for his time, hired another well-trained designer for his staff—bringing his total number of studio students to seven. As for the rest of us? We can count on excellent airport architecture for decades to come.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications, and edits a digital design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com. He is the author of Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand (Routledge: 2015).