At 7:00 a.m. on a recent Monday morning, the International Terminal of the San Francisco (SFO) sits empty of passengers. Sunlight washes in through translucent glass along its eastern side, and the building’s ceilings, so high as to be celestial, make all human activity below seem tiny and isolated. A ticket agent yawns as she tidies her work station and starts up her computer. A maintenance person leads a mop and bucket in a slow waltz toward the metal detector, and the drowsy security team waves her through. At a cafe at the south end of the terminal a half-dozen police officers quietly gossip at one set of tables, and a dozen construction workers suddenly guffaw nearby.
A well-dressed and exhausted-looking figure arrives. Craig Hartman was Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s (SOM) partner in charge of designing the city’s new international airport terminal, a joint venture between SOM, Michael Willis & Associates, and the office of Del Campo & Maru. It consumed seven years of Hartman’s life, putting him through fierce battles over budget, space, and seismic safety. Hartman is visibly weary. He introduces himself while ordering coffee, and by 11 a.m., after three-and-a-half hours of wandering the facility and discussing its design and history, he has consumed four cups.The creation of this calm and beautiful setting was a raging war, full of disastrous setbacks and close calls. The International Terminal opened to passenger traffic on December 9, 2000. The building worked, and it is a magnificent piece of design, built for 15 years of continued growth. It continues to take withering fire from the local press, however, for breaking its budget and schedule promises-an expose on the project in the local SF Weekly was titled “San Francisco International Airpork.” Cost overruns were enormous and frequent. For instance, the airport commission initially asked the architects to provide space at the east end of the International Terminal for future retail expansion. Hartman planned to create an open roof garden that would easily convert to retail space. But midway through the terminal’s construction, the commission decided it needed the retail revenue immediately, and ordered up plans.The contractors pounced, and a slew of change orders arrived in the commission’s office, dashing any hopes of finishing on time and under budget. The airport’s November 1999 internal cost report forecast a $1.9 billion budget for the master plan to overhaul SFO. That cost has since risen, according to airport director John Martin, to $2.4 billion, and when one figures in financing costs, a new Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station, and interest, he concedes the number may be closer to $3.5 billion. Tutor-Saliba Corporation, the largest contractor involved, billed roughly $850 million alone.
Even though the International Terminal is finished, the saga of the construction process hasn’t ended. The Bay Area tends to give its public contracts to firms that have majority partnerships with minority businesses. Tutor-Saliba is accused by minority contractors of creating shell alliances to win more of the work under affirmative action laws, and then jettisoning the partnerships when the contracts were granted. (The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority is currently investigating similar accusations against the firm.) And the airport is still trying to sort out the change orders from its 10 contractors, some of whom are suspected of egregiously pad
ding their billings with dinners, limousine service, even the time and paperwork required to hit the airport with the inflated billings-Tutor-Saliba filed more than 400 change orders, to the tune of $250 million.
The airport commission feels it was all worth it, however. The International Terminal is the final piece of an airport commission master plan, created in 1992, to provide the Bay Area with a world-class air facility. The region has become associated with the riches of technology and, more recently, with its economic pitfalls (in an airport newsstand, a New York Times headline reads “With New Economy Chilling, San Fra
ncisco’s Party Fizzles”). At the time the airport plan was created, however, the Internet was still the purview of graduate students and military personnel, and the Bay Area was in a deep economic downturn.
Airports are considered tremendously important in upgrading the economy of their host cities–the resulting passengers and cargo create thousands of jobs. But until recently, airports were not themselves considered businesses. Typically, airport directors were expected to break even, little more. In recent years, however, business travel to and from international destinations has become increasingly profitable, and SFO has had great success in that area. When the airport’s former director, Louis Turpen, drew up a master plan for the airport in 1992, Asian business travel was rapidly expanding, in spite of the recession. “Our international market grows 10 percent annually,” says Martin, “compared to 3 percent growth in our domestic market.” SFO’s master plan is intended to take advantage of this growth.
The airport is a development on the scale of a small city. Thirty-four thousand people work at SFO. More than 771,930 metric tons of cargo and 40 million travelers move through its facilities eac
h year. In 1998, six million of those travelers were international passengers. That number is estimated to double by 2006. The airport commission is owner and landlord at SFO, and the airlines, concession operators, and other service companies are all tenants, paying enormous scheduled fees to use the space. These tenants are what make or break an airport’s profit plan, so their satisfaction is a big priority. “We make $75 million on parking each year, $45 million on rental cars, and $26 million on duty-free sales,” Martin explains.
SFO sits on a very limited site south of the city–jutting out into the bay, the site is 85 percent landfill. All of the buildable land area had been consumed before the expansion, so the only option was to build up. Turpen’s master stroke was to place the International Terminal over the roadway which leads into and out of the circle of existing terminals. This maximized space, but it created an extraordinary planning–challenge h
ow to build the damn thing without disturbing the traffic below. The construction crews had to reroute active traffic each day, and the terminal’s bridge-like baseplate had to be able to support not just the building, but also the heavy machinery required to put it up. Between this complicated construction process and the dizzying programmatic requirements-baggage, arriving and departing international passengers, the work of a variety of federal agencies, airline offices, their employees, and facilities for everything from security personnel to airport management–it is amazing how well the building turned out.
Hartman begins his tour on the west side of the main terminal. He seems nervous at first, but slowly gains momentum as he looks around. “I believe we are moving toward democracy all over the world
, and that the right to travel is a basic tenet of that movement,” he says. “This building tries to embody that notion architecturally.” Arriving at the curb, one enters the airport at its western edge, through revolving doors in an enormous glass curtain wall. The structural elements of the terminal are simple and elegant: two rows of wing-like trusses atop four sets of steel columns, with a third, smaller set of trusses suspended between them. Take everything else away and these elements would stand firm-a 700-foot-long, 200-foot-deep steel pavilion with the bay wind whistling through.
On either side as one walks east, the tops of a row of bamboo trees, planted one level below and stretching upward through the open section, move gently in the interior breeze. Seeking boundaries, the eye is immediately drawn upward to the ceiling, 83 feet above. The exposed steel trusses have steel ribs, and the central group is spanned by a scrim to reflect and refract light down through the building during the day.
he fourth level, the BART station on the third level, or the curb. They will then go to the ticket counter, and walk beyond to the back wall, where they will be given their only directional choice of the design: left or right to their plane. Either decision will lead them past large glass display cases, shops, and restaurants, through security, and into one of two 12-gate terminals, designed, respectively, by Gerson/Overstreet Architects and Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum with Robin Chiang & Co.Long two-story ticket counters stretch away to the east, and beyond stands a cherry-wood wall, ticked with a series of rectangular metal louvers that obscure windows within. These louvers, and others set into the other three walls, are filled with sound-absorbing materials to keep the cavernous space from ringing with the reflected sound of announcements and foot traffic.
Hartman and his team worked to make the navigation of the building as simple as possible, and its glass envelope helps make that navigation legible by keeping visitors oriented–from almost anywhere in the terminal, one can see the light rail stations at either end of the building, and the tarmac to the east. When all transportation systems are finished, passengers will enter either from the interterminal light rail trains on t
Hartman cringes as a police officer zips past on his bicycle, visibly enjoying the sensation of riding through the vast space. “Oh god,” the architect says, as the cop cuts a sharp circle, etching the shining floors with a parenthetical line of rubber.
Many things were out of Hartman’s control; this errant bicyclist is only the latest. Consider the interests of the airlines. Because their passengers are the lifeblood of the airport’s business, airlines wield a special bargaining power. In addition to rent on the gates, airlines pay a landing fee to the airport commission for the wear and tear their planes inflict on the runways and facilities. Currently, San Francisco’s landing fe
architects laid out their plans, representatives from the airlines began to grumble, and, eventually, shriek.es are some of the lowest among the nation’s top airports, and the airlines are desperate to keep it that way. As the
Architect Michael Willis recalls fierce battles between the airport commission and its prime tenants. “The airlines kept saying, ‘We just want a stucco box-we don’t care about anything else,'” he says. “They just wanted capacity.” “For the airlines, efficiency of operation is numero uno. That’s their main concern, no matter what,” says Hartman. “They consider any aesthetically driven decisions to be an extraneous cost. It’s terribly debilitating to hear your work described that way.” Many airports farm out construction costs to their tenant airlines, who then have exclusive control over the facilities and their design–the United terminal in Chicago is an example. But SFO raised bonds and financed the entire project themselves, without any state or federal funding, and Hartman therefore had a line of defense between himself and the demands of the cost-conscious airlines. Both airport directors–Turpen, and Martin after him-defended the need for a grand public building, and also forced the carriers to share facilities.
The result is a spectacular open space, a common-use style of airport rarely seen in the United States. Most airlines choose a dedicated row of ticket counters with offices behind. At SFO, long, thin ticket aisles extend from the east edge of the main space, and are adaptable to the day’s flight schedule. Although United has rented the greatest number of gates, each ticket counter and digital overhead placard can be used by any airline, so their agents expand up and down the aisles as needed.The ticket aisles are two stories tall. The lower level is an open, double-loaded floor area where agents work with passengers on both sides. Airlines need their agents to have ready access to supervisors, however, so Hartman created a second story of small offices above the ticket counters. This second story is sheathed in frosted glass, and during the day murky figures can be seen walking within. At night, the lights from inside back-light workers dramatically, and the glow is designed to draw passengers instinctively to the counters. Age
nts can climb a set of stairs at one end of each aisle, and, if necessary, walk through to the larger administrative offices behind the cherry-wood wall. These aisles are the most complicated and essential part of the building. The roof, for all its formal beauty, has little function beyond shelter and structure. Every major mechanical and electrical system of the airport comes together within the aisles: HVAC, baggage handling, and lighting, to name a few.
Unfortunately, only half of the travelers who use the terminal experience its soaring democratic symbolism. This is not necessarily the fault of the architects–it’s a symptom of Federal Inspection Service (FIS) regulations, which require that arriving passengers remain “sterile” and out of contact with anyone until they have pa
ssed through customs. FIS regulations are an incredible roadblock. “It doesn’t matter how many times they’ve already reviewed the regulations,” sighs C. Keith Boswell, SOM’s senior technical director. “They can and will change them again the next day.” At SFO, these arriving passengers are relegated to low ceilings and a bleary search for their bags until they emerge from customs. The architects made every effort to give them some sense of the building’s soaring heights. Travelers emerge from customs through a milky glass wall and walk toward their families through the linear grove of bamboo. The trees reach up through the building’s open section, and for a brief m
oment travelers catch a glimpse of the trusses glowing high above the entrance hall, before the experience becomes all hugs, handshakes, and taxicabs. Up to that point, however, the process of arrival says more about America’s efforts to control its borders than it does about the grand promise of democracy.
But for those who get to see the terminal’s entrance hall, no matter how quickly, the experience makes a lasting impression: a bright, vaulting room where for a moment travelers can forget the crushing stress of travel and breathe free. As the sun begins to shine directly down through the scrim above, Hartman glances at his watch. He shakes hands, says goodbye, and darts past the bamboo and through the west wall. A tourist family emerges from a taxicab and brushes past him. As they enter the terminal for the first time, they glance up and around them for a few moments, and then their eyes fix forward: In front of them is a mannequin wearing a costume from a local musical production. A long ball gown rises to meet an enormous wig, which contains various miniaturized San Francisco monuments. The family surveys sequined replicas of the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, and, at the front, the International Terminal in which they stand. They regard the wig a moment, then they lug their bags toward the ticket aisles and begin their long journey home.