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Influential Projects of 2009

By Michele Meyer

Perspective scoured the globe to uncover some of the most influential projects from the past year and found four that not only evoke emotion, but were propelled by motion.

Planes, trains and automobiles inspired several of 2009’s most jaw-dropping, significant projects. An Abu Dhabi hotel built over a Formula One racetrack, a Belgian high-speed train station, a San Jose, Calif. airport terminal and a transportable Atlanta school addition all dazzled with their design and purpose.

{Project} Mineta San Jose International Airport
{By} Gensler
{Location} San Jose, Calif.

Finally, an airport where passengers want to linger. It starts with eye-catching and undulating aluminum panels on the exterior and continues with a curved ceiling inside the new North Concourse of the Mineta San Jose International Airport in San Jose, Calif., created by San Francisco-based architecture and design firm Gensler. The design was inspired by San Jose’s 300 days of sunshine a year, says Steve Weindel, Gensler’s Principal in charge of design.

Nine years in the making, the $342 million concourse is only the latest step in Gensler’s $1.3 billion modernization of an airport with a widely scattered hodgepodge of buildings from the ‘50s to the ‘80s. The firm tore down the oldest buildings, reconfigured the airport’s exits and parking lots, and allowed for future connections to both local and regional (BART) mass transportation systems.

Nearly 25 Gensler designers brainstormed with San Jose-based Steinberg Architects, 50 community groups and each airport department to determine the city’s needs now and in the future. Designers saw what elements and materials worked — and what didn’t — in the past, Weindel says.

Also challenging, the airport remained open during construction, and its downtown dimensions were hemmed in by the Guadalupe River on one side and freeways on the other three. Gensler added texture and dimension to the concourse’s narrow 1,600-by-90-foot shape by including a sloped ceiling, a serpentine carpet edge and swirls across an epoxy terrazzo floor. The firm incorporated the earthy green and golden hues of surrounding hills — avoiding sterility — and a wall of Douglas Fir planks to warm the concourse. “It’s also a nod to the area’s agrarian past,” says David Loyola, Senior Associate Design Director for Gensler. “And in keeping with San Jose’s relaxed lifestyle, we chose to create chair groupings, rather than rows, at gates.”

As an airport of the future, Mineta offers the latest security and baggage systems. And low-velocity displacement ventilation near the floors cools only areas occupied by passengers, unlike traditional air conditioning blowing from the highest point.

“We can set the temperature 10 degrees warmer, while keeping people just as comfortable and saving tremendous energy,” Weindel says. That feature, and the mesh filters-and-glass roof, help the building consume 14 percent less energy than current California energy codes demand.

“So many airports could be anywhere. We wanted an airport that couldn’t be anywhere but San Jose,” Weindel says. “The city wanted an airport that would become an icon for the city and Silicon Valley — and that’s what we delivered.”

{Project} The Yas Hotel
{By} Asymptote Architecture
{Location} Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

A500-room hotel central to the new $36 million Yas Marina/Formula One racetrack in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, is a sleek, space-age spectacle.

A canopy of 5,800 pivoting diamondshaped glass panels releases desert heat and draws attention to the complex. What do the shimmering shells represent? Overturned boats, billowing Bedouin tents or ornate Islamic jewelry?

“I like that the shell evokes different things in people. That’s what gives art and architecture longevity,” says Principal Hani Rashid, co-founder of Asymptote Architecture. “They want to learn more.”

But Rashid and his partners had no time to ponder. With only two years before a non-negotiable opening of October 30, 2009, the date of the new track’s Formula One Grand Prix, construction was a race against time. “We had to design certain aspects while building,” he says.

The firm moved 30 staffers from its headquarters in New York to Abu Dhabi, where they labored alongside 120 workers from local Dewan Architects and Engineers. Bartenbach LichtLabor GmbH, a lighting design firm based in Innsbruck, Austria, handled the lighting. While Arup Bridge of New York and ship builders Centraalstaal B.V. of Groningen, The Netherlands, created the 205-foot long bridge connecting the hotel’s towers.

With no straight lines and huge windows over the track, the bridge evokes a futuristic racecar. Inside, Eurasian décor and moody lighting fill the space.

The lobby continues the exterior’s space-age modernity. “Everything celebrates speed, and the spirit and poetic elegance of technology in yachts and racecars,” Rashid says. Marble and terrazzo tile floors are inlaid with swooping metal stripes to depict motion, while columns brandish brushed stainless steel in the spirit of auto bodies. Yacht builders made the counters from the same fiberglass and aluminum used in ships.

Asymptote — which has produced experimental art installations since opening in 1989 — contributed the lobby’s back-lit abstract sculptures, previously shown at Venice’s Biennale and Kassel, Germany’s Documenta art exhibits. “We created atmosphere with colored lights that are soothing, not flamboyant,” he says.

Asymptote’s hallmark computer-aided design allows for non-repetitive shapes. These are equally arresting at the firm’s 40-story luxury residential Strata Tower in Abu Dhabi, 166 Perry Street lofts in Manhattan and the Perm Museum in Perm, Russia.

While the world wrestles with a weakened economy, Yas Hotel offers a beacon of hope, Rashid says. “These buildings are celebratory, and their flourishes reflect the optimism of the region — and our firm.”

{Project} PeaPoD School
{By} Perkins + Will
{Location} Atlanta

Trailers work well for horses — not for students.

Yet “temporary” trailers with limited lighting and cramped quarters sprout in schoolyards across the nation. What’s more: They never disappear.

That’s why Chicago-based Perkins + Will concocted a new approach: a movable, flexible building surrounded by gardens to house students at ‘20s-era Druid Hills High School in Atlanta while the firm also expanded and updated its original building.

“We didn’t want the students to suffer,” says architect Allen Post, Project Director at Perkins + Will.

The firm named these transportable classrooms — for which Perkins + Will was given a 2009 Architecture for Humanity award — PeaPoDs, because “students are housed in a green way that protects them during their development and delivers nutrients,” Post says.

Toward that goal, buildings have roofs higher on the sides than the middle, so rainwater funnels into cisterns for growing fruits and vegetables, which teachers can then use to teach children about healthy eating habits.

With sustainability in mind, the designers built solar panels into the roofs with light sensors so lights shut off on bright days to lower energy bills. An overhang on the side of each building creates shade while a transparent wall to the north rises like a garage door so classrooms expand to the outdoors in ideal weather. “Studies show test scores and attendance rise with natural sunlight,” Post says.

“Smart boards” digitize teachers’ notes as they write them, which can then be emailed to students. Desks and chairs are separate, allowing teachers to group students to fit teaching methods or class subjects. “Research also shows children move in chairs while they learn, and this helps them focus,” Post says.

“We were wowed [by] how Perkins + Will took temporary classrooms to a new level,” says Sandhya Naidu Janardhan, the Design Fellow on the Classroom Challenge for San Francisco’s Architecture for Humanity. “They used materials very creatively to make flexible learning spaces that are available to schools around the world. It was a holistic approach and works well within current modular construction building codes.”

The project’s seven designers specialize in kindergarten through 12th grade schools — and are motivated personally. Most are parents under 35 and have children under the age of five who most likely will go to Druid High, says Post, father of a 2- and 4-year-old. “I didn’t want my children to learn in trailers. That was an added incentive.’’

{Project} Liège-Guillemins TGV Railway Station
{By} Santiago Calatrava
{Location} Liège, Belgium

Adingy neighborhood in Liège, a city in eastern Belgium, might make some architects cower behind grand, but opaque, buildings. Not Santiago Calatrava, a New York-, Paris- and Zurich, Switzerland-based designer and architect known for bridges and train stations.

Instead, Calatrava — who was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2005 — created a transparent, soaring cathedral of glazed glass over 39 steel ribs. The building flauntsnot only the high-speed station beneath, but also the Cointe Hills nearby. “There’s no better way to celebrate the technological achievement of high-speed transport than to expose the working platforms and dynamism of moving trains,” Calatrava says.

When viewed by passengers within the station, the canopies glimmer like a single pearlized shell, creating a grandscale frame of Liège, he says. Departing passengers see the slopes beyond, echoed in the roof’s sinuous curves.

Despite its lack of a façade, the roof announces the station’s presence. Extended 476 feet beyond the terminal building, it lets sunlight — but not rain — fall on passengers using five train tracks. The station tested Calatrava’s resolve and required 13 years to complete in September 2009, despite his expertise designing stations in Lyon-Saint Exupery, France, Zurich, Switzerland, and Lisbon, Portugal.

“I had to replace the existing station without interrupting train service or disturbing the 36,000 travelers who pass through the station daily,” Calatrava says. “So we used a technique normally employed in bridge construction. The principal frames were assembled in an area away from the trains and at night, and the frames were pushed in groups of six onto the principal supports. Only short overnight closures were needed.”

To avoid a confusing maze, he grouped ticket counters, waiting rooms, shops and the bar-restaurant on a level below the platforms. Glass blocks along the tracks filter daylight to avoid a subterranean feel. A series of pedestrian bridges and basement-level walkways connect three levels of parking to the station. Blue limestone — historic to the region — forms floors, plaza cobbles and benches.

Calatrava wants his design to inspire further rejuvenation throughout the region. “The urban plaza directly in front of the station will link the station back to the Meuse River, providing a focal point for renewal of the area as a whole,” says the architect, who also designed the Athens Olympic Sports Complex and an expansion of the Milwaukee Art Museum. He hopes surrounding asphalt car lots will be developed into housing, offices and hotels in the town known for steel manufacturing, aerospace, beer and chocolate.

In the meantime, exploring Liège is easier for northern Europeans: High-speed trains slash the trek between Brussels, Belgium, and Paris by 68 minutes, and to Amsterdam, The Netherlands, by an hour.

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