The Airports of Curtis Fentress

The art of the passenger terminal.

icn curbside
Paul Dingman

“In less than a century, the airport has become a new category of architecture,” writes Christoph Heinrich, director of the Denver Art Museum, in the foreword to the new book Now Boarding. “In the hands of a master architect like Curtis Fentress, airports can also be something else: art.” The book (published by the Denver Art Museum in association with Scala Publishers) and art exhibition of the same name, introduce readers to the architecture of flight.

The airports built by Fentress and his team—who have studios in Denver, Los Angeles, San Jose, Washington, D.C., and London—don’t just remind passengers what city they're in, they embody the place by evoking local geography and culture. When Fentress Bradburn Architects won the commission for Incheon International Airport (above), Fentress immersed himself in Korean culture, poring over the country’s literature and sifting through the stalls at open-air markets until he hit on the structural motif that seemed essential to Korea's nature: the catenary curve, the natural arc formed by a chain suspended between two points.

See the gallery below for more of Fentress' designs. Images and text adapted from Now Boarding; reprinted with the permission of the publisher.


(Timothy Hursley)

The Denver International Airport passenger terminal was inspired by the nearby Rocky Mountains. The roof structure, supported by 28 masts reaching heights of up to 150 feet, can safely shift up to 24 inches at its peak point during high-wind storms. The fabric roof provides considerable daylighting, requiring less artificial light. At night the translucent roof emits a soft glow.

Design Concept

(Chris Humphreys)

Fentress took an unlikely route to architecture. The son of sharecroppers, he joined his parents in the North Carolina tobacco fields before dawn, putting in several hours of labor before school.

In the ninth grade, a drafting teacher noticed his talents for drawing and math, and suggested Fentress become an architect. After graduation from North Carolina State University he joined I.M. Pei’s architectural firm in 1972. Eight years later he started his own firm, but it wasn’t until 1987, when he entered a competition to design what would become the Colorado Convention Center, that his career took off. In 1989, Fentress and his partner, Jim Bradburn, were asked to submit a design concept for the Denver International Airport, a project that was already a year behind schedule and $75 million over budget. The architects' winning design would make Denver one of the most recognized airports in the world.


(Rendering: Fentress Architects)

Los Angeles International Airport is a symbol of the Jet Age. The Fentress-designed Bradley West International Terminal, to be completed in 2014 (artist rendering shown here), is inspired by the rhythmic waves that lap the sands of nearby beaches. A skybridge will eventually link the terminals aboveground, and will allow passengers an unparalleled view of the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Santa Monica Mountains to the east.


(Jason A. Knowles / Fentress Architects)

The design of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport honors the region’s economy, heritage, and landscape. Its rolling roofs evoke the hills of the Piedmont, and are supported by wood trusses that speak to the region’s legacy of handcrafted furniture. Trusses of the length required for the terminal had never been used before in an airport. Fentress worked in conjunction with scientists and engineers at North Carolina State University to run extensive strength tests that eventually confirmed the beams’ suitability. Metal struts connected by steel cable finish the effect, recalling the bows of violins while highlighting the balance that exists in the region between tradition and innovation.


(James P. Scholz)

The defining design inspiration for the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was the area’s many outdoor markets, such as Pike Place Market, which are known for offering unique products in an airy setting.


(Ken Paul)

The hands of 54 Silicon Valley residents greet passengers at Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC) from an 84,000-square-foot mural spanning the consolidated rental car facility and public parking garage. Created by artist Christian Moeller, the work, entitled Hands, was constructed from two layers of metal mesh with circular pegs forming a pointillistic image.

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