San Diego, California, is one of the few cities in the United States that has an international airport at its urban core. When the city released an RFQ looking to create a small park at the end of one runway, close to downtown, Legge Lewis Legge rose to the challenge. The park, which sits at the confluence of different modes of public transportation, is a balance of architecture and public art installation.
Situated a block and a half from a trolley car station, the half-acre park serves as a gateway to the airport. “The park is the entry portal if you’re coming by public transit, so it becomes this interesting multi-modal experience where you’re coming by train and seeing planes take off and catching the bus to the airport,” describes Murray Legge, FAIA.
Legge Lewis Legge, an interdisciplinary collaborative based in Austin and New York City that focuses on art and architecture, responded to the shape of the site in developing its design: The observation deck took the form of a wing rising above the ground. Since airports are usually surrounded by fences and barbed wire, there is often a physical barrier to watching the planes take off and land. By lifting the observation deck, those obstacles are removed. “On a practical level, it gets you off the ground to see the planes, but in the piece itself, we wanted to create this heightened spatial experience of lifting off the ground,” Legge says. The design was inspired by the sensation of lift-off, that first moment when an airplane is charging down the runway and the wheels leave the ground. Legge approached the design as an earthworks project.
One of the primary components is a cantilevered concrete arm that tapers to a blade-like edge. Hovering over the sidewalk, it lifts visitors high into the air. This presented some engineering challenges, as it is located on an old fill site. “The engineering team came up with this ingenious solution to create a back slab held by the earth,” Legge says. “There is a kind of contrast in the project between the concrete overhang of the structure and the earthbound landscape components.”
Thornton Tomasetti provided structural engineering services, and Atkins is the civil engineer. Landscape architect Patricia Trauth, from Rick Engineering, filled in the site with native coastal plantings. BSE Engineering developed a lighting scheme that washes the park’s surfaces as opposed to shining in visitors’ eyes, keeping the view of the jets on their landing and takeoff runs clear at night.
The design was inspired by the San Diego environment as much as by the nature of flight. Since the city is a surfing town, there are subtle allusions to hydrodynamics in the earthwork forms.
By making an effort to incorporate its airport into the urban fabric, San Diego is taking a step that few cities have. According to Legge, “It’s really progressive on the part of this airport authority to think of the space around the airport as this exhilarating space.” The city is taking advantage of people’s inherent interest in the awe and wonder of flight and creating a park for people to have those experiences. The park, opening in summer 2017, is just one part of a master plan to create more of a connection between the city and the airport, integrating transportation seamlessly into San Diego’s core.
Alyssa Morris is web editor of Texas Architect.