Monday, March 8, 2010

Alaska + Architecture = Pretty deece

The new Fairbanks Airport is featured in this month's Architectural Record along side three other flashy transit projects (no ports, though) including a Calatrava train station. I've included the online version below, but I suggest you check out the print version instead.

Fairbanks International Airport

Fairbanks, Alaska
Bettisworth North

Bettisworth North channels Alaska’s frontier spirit with an elegantly rustic terminal building

By Weld Royal

In the 1950s, officials in Fairbanks, Alaska, erected a small terminal by a landing strip in a magnificent location — to its southeast rose the great Alaska Range capped by Mount McKinley, and to its northwest, the Tanana River plateau and a boreal forest of birch and spruce.

Fairbanks International Airport
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The airport started off serving bush pilots flying to remote communities. It was remodeled and expanded on separate occasions in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s into a sprawling, 143,000-square-foot facility that failed to keep pace with the needs of its travelers. Locals said it looked like a bunker. By 2003, the lines of summer travelers waiting to clear security at the airport were almost as legendary as the display of its collection of dead trophy animals. Approximately 800,000 travelers used the airport annually. It handled national and international airlines, hosted rental-car companies, and had a customs and border control area. Over the next two decades, forecasts predicted passenger traffic increasing to 920,000.

Airport officials realized they would have to make changes to handle that growth. There were new federal requirements for security screening and equipment, and the airport needed upgrades to meet seismic standards. (A major fault line runs through Fairbanks.)


The State of Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities commissioned Bettisworth North of Fairbanks to draw up a comprehensive terminal-area development plan.

The plan’s $71 million construction budget would result in an 84,000-square-foot addition, a 59,000-square-foot renovation of the existing terminal, and demolition of the remaining structure. It would include an entry hall, an arrival-and-departure concourse and lounges, separate spaces for baggage screening and customs and border control, as well as a boarding area for passengers using small planes.

Charles Bettisworth, founder of Bettisworth North, grew up in Fairbanks, and calls it a “rustic frontier.” Prospectors first discovered gold in its creeks more than a century ago, and abandoned mining equipment is rusting away in its hills. The town thrived during World War II and housed construction workers for the Alaska Highway, and much later for the Trans Alaska Pipeline. Today, it is home to durable, boxy, low-rise structures built to accommodate the region’s short construction season and huge temperature swings — from minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit during winter to highs in the 90s on long summer days.


Bettisworth’s architectural solution provides a refreshing contrast to the local built environment. The design of the addition and renovation employs common local construction materials — concrete, metal, wood, and stone — and interprets them in a contemporary but suitable form. “People come to Fairbanks for frontier,” Bettisworth says, “not De Stijl.”

The airport’s face to those arriving by road is a glass-paneled curtain wall marked by four vestibules in orange glass. Their permanent lighting gives off a firelike glow against the darkness, which by December descends on Fairbanks for all but a few hours.

Mechanical relics of abandoned mines provide inspiration for the entry hall. A series of nonstructural steel columns set up a nice vertical rhythm against the long horizontal structure. Their rusty patina is repeated inside the entry lobby. Metal sheets sprayed with an acid solution take on the color of worn leather and clad prominent interior wall spaces.

Visitors move through the lobby on an axial circulation path that extends like a spine along the front of the building and passes ticketing areas, rental-car booths, and baggage claim. “In the original terminal, people had no space to walk, but whether or not to build the spine was one of the biggest design decisions,” says Bettisworth.

The simple parti is bordered by exposed steel pillars wrapped in concrete planks. The planks were formed using a mold based on local spruce, giving the space a woody feeling. The path’s ceiling is heavy timber construction and glulam beams. The use of wood is repeated in paneling and ceilings throughout the terminal — conveying warmth and connecting travelers to Alaska’s great forests and a prevalent local construction material.

The transition of finishes and materials from the first-floor entry hall to the second-floor concourse is meant to convey to departing travelers the idea that they are leaving a pioneer town for a more refined destination, and just the opposite for those arriving. The materials on the concourse are the same as the entry hall, but more polished. Its floor is covered in rich cherry wood; its wall panels are stainless steel. The volume of the concession area, with 22-foot-high ceilings, is double that of the concourse’s lounges. A glass-paneled expanse looks out to the Alaska Range. “When the sun shines, it’s magnetic,” says Bettisworth.


Alaska is feeling the impact of global warming, including loss of sea ice, increased flooding, and softening permafrost. Most forms of energy are more expensive in the state than in other parts of the country. Despite this, the LEED-certified buildings in Alaska number fewer than a dozen. Bettisworth says that though the terminal is cooled using ground-source heat pumps during warm months, and much of the stainless steel for the project came from a local fabricator, when the project was first developed there wasn’t interest in pursuing the certification.

A LEED certification for the airport, an iconic and heavily used structure, would have sent a message to other builders about the promise and possibility of sustainable design in Alaska.

Gross square footage:
143,000 (Renovation of 59,000 Addition of 84,000)

Owner: State of Alaska:
Project Management: Rise Alaska, Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska

Cost: $71.8 million

Completion date: December 2009

212 Front Street
Fairbanks, Alaska 99701
phone 907 456 5780
fax 907 451 8522

Weld Royal is a freelance writer based in Alaska.

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