Fentress Airports soar into future at Denver Art Museum


Part of the “Now Boarding” exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, these flight attendant uniforms reflect their respective eras. From left, United Airlines 1937-38, designed by Fiolel Colangelo; United Airlines 1968-70, designers Jean Louis and Mae Hanauer; Pacific Southwest Airlines 1973-76, designer unknown; Braniff International 1977, designer Halston; and Pan American World Airways, designer Adolfo Dominguez. Photo by Melanie J. Rice

The Denver Art Museum’s “Now Boarding” show — which celebrates airports designed by Denver architect Curt Fentress along with the architecture of flight — arrived in July and runs through October 7.

It offers fascinating facets of the past, present and future of flight in a highly accessible presentation.

Along with future visions of vertical-lift planes that don’t need runways and planes with folding wings to save space, one show component, called the “culture lounge, “ looks back at a time that not many of today’s students can remember.

Although the alleged “golden age” of flight in the 1950s and ‘60s is gone, airport design and technology has moved far forward.

The Fentress-designed and remodeled airports from Denver’s DIA to facilities in Seattle, Seoul, South Korea; San Jose, Calif., Raleigh-Durham, N.C. and elsewhere have been a big part of that progress. All are highlighted in the DAM show.

The Fentress firm is now working on a new and futuristic terminal for Los Angeles International Airport, also known as LAX.

The Fentress-designed Bradley West terminal at LAX will have two levels, to allow faster loading and unloading of planes. Like the mountain-peaks main concourse at DIA that echoes Colorado’s mountains, the long and linear Bradley terminal’s exterior look will mimic the ocean waves lapping nearby beaches.

Similarly, the Fentress-design revamp of the Seattle-Tacoma airport’s main concourse offers a “Pacific Rim” retail and restaurant flavor while echoing the ambiance of Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market.

Dressed in a natty pinstriped jacket and tropical shirt without the signature bow tie that used to be favored by architects, Fentress exuded his own style while autographing copies of his “Now Boarding” book that’s a companion to the show at a museum members’ preview.

Elaborating on a theme that “every airport at one time was the airport of the future,” Fentress discussed how his DIA started as an “airport city” model while his Inchon Airport in Seoul, South Korea, is more of an all-inclusive “aerotropolis.”

The Inchon approach is now being promoted for DIA by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and some city planners.

This “aerotropolis,” Fentress said, “combines, in a single exurban area, the aspects of work, residential, retail and recreation.” Each of those facilities “ are connected to other communities by mass-transit systems like light rail,” he added.

“Now Boarding,” traces the air age and airports from the Wright Brothers’ 1903 first flight that was shorter than today’s commonly-used Boeing 737s through a 1970s “explosion” in air travel. According to the exhibit, better planes, more routes and cheaper fares opened up a future world of flight possibilities. It’s worth taking the time to see each component and to read all the information panels.

The exhibit also points out that, as early as 1927, German filmmaker Fritz Lange’s silent “Metropolis” movie showed a world of personal planes and jetpack-powered citizens flying around multi-level future cities of Art Deco spires.

That still hasn’t come to pass and maybe the future isn’t what people once imagined it to be. But “Now Boarding” presents air travel possibilities that may yet materialize in the lifetimes of today’s students.

Against the backdrop of a show that credits Fentress with doing much “to humanize the often-disappointing experience of air travel,” Fentress himself is self-effacing and gives credit where due.

With a trace of North Carolina drawl and a straight face, he can say “I’ve been to presentations where young people and architecture students saw me as some sort of Walt Disney for doing DIA. But you have to give credit to the 700 people who worked on it. And when you take in everybody, it may be more like 7,000.”

“But, to see all this in a major museum setting and to have our firm credited with affecting the lives of so many people, is for me a wonderful feeling,” Fentress said. “And unlike some of the great airport architects of the past, I’m still alive to see it.”

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J. Sebastian Sinisi


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