Fort McMurray International Airport
Northern Exposure: The creation of a new airport for an emerging Canadian town provides a welcome portal for world trade and recreation.
Architects & Firms
Fort McMurray, Alberta
As you fly over the sepia tufts of northern Alberta's boreal forest on a winter's day, a new airport terminal in the town of Fort McMurray (Fort Mac) reads as an industrial sculpture on the flat prairie. Designed by the Vancouver, British Columbia'based office of mcfarlane biggar, the Fort McMurray International Airport is an unexpected gem in a region of beautiful natural surroundings but bleak architecture. The hybrid mass-timber, steel, and concrete structure is part of a larger multistage project and replaces an existing nearby terminal—a tiny bunker barely a fifth the size that has been refurbished for charter flights.
The 160,000-square-foot, three-story building takes its cue from the horizontality and colors of its rugged landscape. The canted bronzed Cor-Ten steel of its facade echoes the hues of the nearby forests and suggests the rigor, energy, and hardiness of the community it serves. The structure itself seems to emerge right out of the land: the upper roadway at departures level serves as the roof for the ground-floor arrivals level, making a seamless connection between the building and its surroundings.
The first thing you notice when you step from a plane is a bountiful sense of welcome, with daylight spilling in from floor-to-ceiling glazing. “Usually, in the arrivals area, you're herded into a dimly lit basement with no natural light at all,” says firm principal in charge Steve McFarlane. “At Fort Mac, it's actually the grandest part of the airport.” Daylight even seeps into the sequestered baggage-handling section on the east side of the ground floor via a series of slot windows—a workplace amenity almost unheard of in conventional airport design. The only sections that are strictly shielded from daylight are the security-screening offices that demand complete privacy.
While a central interior stairway is sheathed in a steel alloy, the main passenger circulation and lounge areas are, by and large, defined by wood. Glulam beams hold up wide planks of cross-laminated timber (CLT)—a high-strength engineered spruce-pine-fir super-plywood made in British Columbia at one of only two facilities in North America. Beneath, an elegant oak veneer clads the wall along the gate waiting areas, its perforated surface serving as a conduit for sound-absorbing acoustic panels that are concealed discreetly behind it.
The muscularity of the forms and the material palette dovetails with the nature of the end-users: strapping, hard-working men and women—though, to be sure, mostly men. “We wanted the airport to reflect the community,” says McFarlane. The firm has won acclaim for an art gallery, fashion boutique, and many high-end homes, but Fort Mac is another story altogether.
The long shoebox-like volume is broken up into discrete sections that read as intimate, demarcated by shifts in ceiling treatment and wall cladding. Most dramatically, a floating upper-level scrim of vertical slats, made of flat bars of white powder-coated steel, evokes the region's famed Northern Lights when illuminated. The designers have kept internal clutter to a minimum by embedding the waste receptacles and gate numbers in the walls and tucking the sprinkler system and other mechanicals—painted black—in gaps between the ceiling's CLT slabs. Additional sound absorption is integrated into the second-floor walls by way of acoustic insulation installed behind perforated laminated-MDF strips that read as tiles. Through this sort of careful streamlining and architectural clarity, the terminal provides what passengers arguably need more than anything: a sense of calm and quiet.
The plan was conceived so that it can expand in the future. In a town of hastily constructed buildings, whose previous airport was one step up from a Quonset hut, the new terminal is a harbinger for the future, figures Kailer, echoing the sentiments of many of his fellow workers. “It sends a message that it's built for the long term.”
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160,000 square feet
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