Decoding Design

Does airport design contest foretell future of flight?

Posting in Design

Design contest shows airports powered by tidal energy and "pocket airports" built into tall urban buildings.

A jury of architects and airport design experts have selected the three top entries in the 2011 Fentress Global Challenge, an international competition in which students from around the world offered their ideas and concepts for airport designs. The competition was sponsored by Fentress Architects, a firm that specializes in designing airports -- its portfolio includes Denver International Airport and Incheon International Airport near Seoul, South Korea --  and other public spaces, including museums and convention centers.

The students were encouraged to think big, with no restrictions on the proposed sites or sizes of the design concepts. The top prize was given to a design for an airport built on "prefabricated, mass-produced islands" that would sit in the Thames Estuary, upstream from London. The designer, a student at London South Bank University named Oliver Andrew, says the airport would ease the overcrowding of the surrounding airports because it would be accessed only through public transit. The lack of runways in his design means only planes with vertical takeoff capabilities would access it. Energy harvested from tidal currents would help power the airport.

If that sounds terribly futuristic, well, that's the idea. But the concept behind the third-place winner, a "pocket airport" that Alexander Nevarez, a student at Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, Calif., is something that's could have some real currency. Pocket airports would be constructed directly within an urban area, and it's something that a NASA partner, the Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency Foundation (CAFE), has been showing interest in for a number of years.

Pocket airports would serve what might best be described as flying cars. Think of these as the next-next-next (and maybe one more next) generation electric vehicle. But work is underway to build small, nimble aircraft that could serve suburban commuters looking to travel by air. Proponents see this as a way to reveal highway congestion without robbing people of their personal vehicles, and last year CAFE held a Google-sponsored Green Flight Challenge in which prototypical electric and gas-electric hybrid planes took flight.

The Fentress Global Challenge was held, in part, to drum up content for an upcoming exhibit at the Denver Art Museum. Called Now Boarding, the exhibit will provide multi-media descriptions of the past, present and future of airport design. The top three designs as well as many of the other finalist designs will be included in the exhibit, which opens on July 15.

Oliver Andrew was awarded $3,000 in cash and a paid internship at Fentress Architects this summer. The runner-up and third place winners receive cash awards of $1,000 and $500 respectively.

Images: Fentress Architects

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure