Plans for the Pittsburgh International Airport renovation leave a lot to be desired | Architecture | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Plans for the Pittsburgh International Airport renovation leave a lot to be desired

The current presentation looks nothing like Pittsburgh at all

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Atrium as seen from security-checkpoint area - IMAGE COURTESY OF ALLEGHENY COUNTY AIRPORT AUTHORITY
  • Image courtesy of Allegheny County Airport Authority
  • Atrium as seen from security-checkpoint area

Editor's Note: This story has been updated at the bottom with a statement from the Allegheny County Airport Authority that was sent after this piece was published.

On Sept. 12, Allegheny County Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis, alongside several professional associates and political leaders, announced the airport’s Terminal Modernization Project, an undertaking to substantially reconfigure the facility with both demolition and new construction. 

A new 632,000-square-foot terminal will nestle between terminals C and D, in a crook of the X of the old airside terminal, abandoning the costly light rail to the old landside terminal. The number of gates is reduced to 51 (though it’s still expandable) to conveniently accommodate reduced passenger traffic as well as recent efficiencies in engineering. Parking garages, lots and connecting roads will accompany the project, totaling $1.12 billion.

The big moves here — consolidated functions, clarified traffic patterns, and adaptation to smaller but growing markets and current industry practices — look like smart and necessary updates. Pittsburgh needs a smaller destination airport, not the big hub that once was. Said David Menotti, chair of the Airport Authority, “The people of Pittsburgh finally get an airport that’s built for them and not US Air.” 

If you judge by official comments, the building will be for and about Pittsburgh. There will be “a sense of Pittsburgh at the airport,” promised Cassotis, who has been widely praised for overseeing this project. But the current presentation looks nothing like Pittsburgh at all, unless you count the sadly typical plan to tear down a building, the landside terminal, which is not yet paid for. 

The new terminal, whether seen from above or the front, is truly anonymous. “Big box, loose fit,” says Cassotis, describing the planning strategy. It may work for adaptability, but not for personality. Animations of an interior fly-through show vast and well-illuminated spaces, but they aren’t even realistic enough as buildings to convey a sense of place. Press materials describe the improvements from integrating functions on a single floor, but, without published plans, it’s impossible to judge.

Who is the architect? There is no indication in any of the images or video presented. An inquiry to the Airport Authority press office returned a reference to its extensive website, which does not contain that information. One old knock on the current airport is that the contract (as described in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette coverage from March 1996) went to de facto county architect Tasso Katselas in a no-bid process. Yet what we have right now is no architect at all. “An architect has not been hired yet,” says airport spokesperson Bob Kerlik. 

In fairness, it is not uncommon for specialist airport consultants to produce the early versions of plans for a new airport terminal and bring design architects on board with the process already underway. This happened with the H. Weir Cook Terminal at the Indianapolis International Airport, which is similar in size to the Pittsburgh project. 

But no Pittsburgh building can be for or about the city or the region if local firms don’t have a chance to participate in a bidding and selection process and comment on the relevance of international talent. 

For that matter, the Heinz Endowments, through its p4 program (people, planet, place, and performance) has specifically articulated values and processes that could and should apply to large-scale design processes of this kind. If the Airport Authority is not actively adhering to the p4 program or something similar, there is little use touting its Pittsburgh values. 

The current airport process as described seems methodical, with some notable oversights in openness. The sudden move to publish images looks a lot like a rushed effort to woo Amazon, which is seeking a city to locate its new corporate headquarters. “If we don’t name it Fitzgerald,” for the county executive, said state Rep. Mark Mustio, “let’s name it Amazon.” But flaunting our airport like some sort of secondary sex characteristic in an effort to attract a single corporate suitor is what got us into this trouble into the first place. 

“The media has to get the story right … [about] … how awesome this is,” Mustio added. In fact, the story is that the airport will be great only if it embraces the best of Pittsburgh in personnel and process, not simply by talking about it that way. 


Update (9-29-17): Allegheny County Airport Authority spokesman Bob Kerlik sent the following statement to City Paper after the story was published in response to this column: "The firm that the airport has worked with on the Modernization Plan for more than three years is Ricondo & Associates, and part of what has been produced thus far are early, conceptual designs. The airport is now formulating the process and timeline for selecting an architect for the new facility. Sense of place is key for this project. As the airport moves forward, modernizing and fixing the airport to meet the needs of today’s Pittsburgh are at the heart of the plan. Representing Pittsburgh is obviously part of that."

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