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Airport Redesign As Much About Light As About Flight

Mez Joseph

From Charleston Post & Courier
By Robert Behre

rbehre@postandcourier.com

Yo u could make a case that the new Charleston International Airport is the Lowcountry's most important public building.

It might not handle law and governance, like a city hall or courthouse. It might not express our spiritual ideals, like a church or synagogue. And it doesn't nurture us or our memories like a hospital or museum.

But just from the standpoint of how many people will pass through its doors each year, the airport beats them all.

That's the view of architect Curt Fentress of the Denver-based Fen tress Architects, which oversaw the airport's $200 million-plus facelift with help from Liollio Architecture of Charleston.

"We really wanted to make the building have a much more inviting and receptive look, so that it was a welcoming gateway to Charleston," he says.

The result, being unveiled this month, is not an iconic piece of architecture but still a handsome makeover that harkens to a part of the Lowcountry that draws so many people to fly in here in the first place: the beach.

The single greatest change between the new and old airport building is the sun. Advances in high performance glass means the new terminal could have banks of large windows welcoming in far more natural light - without the heat gain that would overwhelm its air conditioners during half the year.

And the dominant white and cream color scheme inside accentuates the sense of lightness, while the tan and green hues of the terrazzo floor recall the shore, as do the tabby wall segments outside.

"To make this building feel like it has a sense of place and is related to Charleston, we did a study of colors and tried to pick up the Lowcountry color scheme with the sea green color and colors of the area." Some might feel the new airport was a missed opportunity for something more dramatic (think of Denver's airport with a sculpted roof canopy that pays tribute to the Rocky Mountain's snow capped peaks, or even of Eero Saarinen's TWA 1962 terminal in New York that celebrated the modern wonder of flight).

But Fentress. who worked on Denver's iconic airport, notes that the budget is a constraint.

As always with a renovation project, a lot of the budget is taken up by the unsexy: improved public restrooms, modernized mechanical and electrical systems, and better baggage handling.

And the work also improved the circulation, so those renting cars aren't bumping up against those collecting their luggage. There's now one security checkpoint, instead of two, and most of the retail and food service sits beyond it.

The more passengers an airport welcomes, the more money is available for the terminal building. The reality is Denver's airport is more than 10 times as busy as ours.

But the opportunity for a signature architectural gesture, at least for those approaching by car, largely was lost years ago when the Charleston County Aviation Authority built a new parking deck just outside the airports front door.

The deck, designed by Charleston's LS3P Associates Ltd., largely blocks the view of the airport.

A series of airy covered walkways with exposed trusses of white steel successfully marry the deck with the building.

So while those approaching the airport by car don't get a dramatic sense of entrance, those approaching on foot will. The new terminal's Central Hall provides its grandest gesture.

And the design features a neat trick: half the hall is before security, while the other half is behind it, though the glass wall separating the two is barely visible to those walking in the door. It reads as one space.

The 48-foot-tall ceiling also was made possible by shifting the offices off to the side, Fentress says.

While little of the airport harkens to Charleston's architectural traditions, the circular dome rising from the ceiling of the Central Hall, is a classic shape.

The series of windows even have an accent of cables, as if one could walk around up there (which they can't).

And at the edge of the Central Hall, where the glass abuts the tarmac, stands an important piece of history, a small wrought iron gazebo built by the late legendary blacksmith Philip Simmons.

While the newly renovated terminal might not take its place as a Lowcountry icon, those passing through its doors and gates will get a sense of why so many people are arriving here.