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How form and function helped make BWI the D.C. area’s busiest airport

“It’s the airport that gets the job done without being flashy”

BWI Airport
Edward Russell

For the past several years, Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) has been the region’s busiest. It handled a record 26.4 million passengers in 2017 and—for the first time since the mid-1980s—surpassed Dulles International Airport in annual passengers in 2012.

But long before then, when major renovations on its terminal were completed in 1979, to the tune of $70 million, BWI stood out for something else: its design. The airport’s “space-frame” pavilion, the geometric structure that runs between what are now Concourses B and D, was groundbreaking for its time.

Made of steel and glass, this airy building broke with the hulking, fortress-like terminals that were common in the U.S. and abroad. It echoed the vibe of a city convention center or a community recreational facility, juxtaposing light and heavy elements.

The pavilion also helped BWI achieve its present-day efficiency and inspired the forms of future airports around the world, from Denver to Madrid to Singapore. “It was a strong, clear idea from the beginning and could accommodate a lot of changes over time,” says Ed Gunts, who worked as the Baltimore Sun’s architecture critic when the terminal opened. “It’s the airport that gets the job done without being flashy.”

BWI in the 1980s
Courtesy of BWI Airport

Today, BWI is widely recognized for its accessibility. Condé Nast Traveler named it among the 10 “best airports in the U.S.” in the magazine’s 2018 Readers’ Choice Awards, citing the Anne Arundel County, Maryland facility’s convenience, dining options, and other amenities. (There is an approximately 1,200-square-foot gym, run by Roam Fitness, between Concourses D and E.)

Still, the airport’s terminal can be easy to overlook, especially when compared to those of its regional peers. Dulles features an iconic jet-age terminal by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen while Reagan National Airport (DCA) boasts a striking modernist-gothic terminal by Argentine-American architect César Pelli.

Local firm Peterson and Brickbauer designed BWI’s pavilion. It was built on top of the original Friendship International Airport structure, which opened in 1950 with a dedication by President Harry S. Truman.

The old terminal had outlived its usefulness, harkening back to an era of fewer passengers and fewer security concerns. In the early 1970s, a series of aircraft hijackings—or “skyjackings,” as they were popularly known—culminated in a three-man team’s 1972 threat to crash a Southern Airways jet into a nuclear power plant. Authorities mandated security checks for all passengers shortly thereafter, forever reshaping airports and their architecture.

“Post-hijack terminals were heavy and grounded, whereas earlier ones had been light and soaring,” author Alastair Gordon writes in his 2008 book Naked Airport. “The sleek and sexy envelopes of the 1960s gave way to blocky concrete bunkerlike shapes…open-style planning gave way to partitions, narrow corridors, single-entry points, and artificial lighting.”

BWI’s architects sought to buck this trend. In a 1980 piece that ran in Architectural Record, Charles Brickbauer noted that his and Warren Peterson’s design for the airport expressed a “shed-like openness with monumental elements,” in contrast with what he saw as a broader move toward more “solid, permanent construction.”

“The inspiration really came from my relationship with Louis Kahn many years before,” Brickbauer says in an interview, referring to the Estonian-American architect. “That was when space constructors [space frames] were first being devised, and I always wanted to have a chance to use one, and here it came.”

The architects’ plans laid out a flexible structure for the building that could easily be extended. Coupled with the deregulation of the airline industry in 1978, this concept aided BWI’s growth, attracting new air service over the following years. The project was also part of the “Baltimore Renaissance,” a larger redevelopment effort from the 1960s to the 1980s in which much of the Inner Harbor was built out.

Rendering of the 1979 pavilion
Peterson and Brickbauer, courtesy of Charles Brickbauer

Peterson and Brickbauer’s terminal was not immediately loved. Reviewing it in 1979, Gunts, the Sun critic, called the ceiling an “erector set flamboyance” and said the structure was “not overly concerned with ensuring that waiting time is pleasant or productive.” But a decade later, he had come around, writing that the building had “held up well” and “grown more beautiful every year.”

Almost four decades after the pavilion was constructed, visitors can still observe natural light fill the space through the glass-curtain façade and the clerestory windows perched high above the airline counters. Bold red columns punctuate the space, anchoring the structure.

Like every airport, though, BWI has evolved over time. A former salient element of the terminal was its unique wayfinding system for travelers—a series of splashy graphics designed by Jane Davis Doggett, a pioneering graphic artist.

Doggett created a nautical flag scheme to help guide travelers from the airport’s check-in counters to their flights. It involved what she once described to Architectural Record as a “colossal supermarket display” of airline logos set above the counters. The logos grabbed arriving visitors’ attention and began a “thread” that visitors could pursue.

Rendering of the 1979 pavilion with wayfinding signs
Peterson and Brickbauer, courtesy of Charles Brickbauer

According to Brickbauer, Doggett’s graphic program “enormously” enhanced the flow of the airport, which he calls a “very simple linear kind of sequence of events.” The graphics were removed during a renovation of the terminal in the mid-1990s and replaced by plain airline banners that hang perpendicular to the wall above the check-in counters.

While its wayfinding signs have changed, BWI has also continued to grow. A new international wing opened to much fanfare in 1997, and less than a decade later, in 2005, new gates served by Southwest Airlines débuted.

The 1997 expansion extended Peterson and Brickbauer’s design. Architectural firms STV and William Nicholas Bodouva + Associates preserved the signature space frames (albeit in white instead of the original black) and the red pillars, but added skylights to increase the amount of natural light in the new gateway.

The 2005 expansion, designed by URS (now AECOM), departed somewhat from the terminal’s older steel-and-glass design. The architects covered the ceiling with panels and eliminated the clerestory windows in favor of skylights directly above the airline counters. As one approaches BWI, the roof dominates this structure with a heavy oblong shape facing the airport’s roadway.

BWI today
Edward Russell

Southwest, which had launched service at the airport in 1993, partially funded the project. More BWI plans are in the works for the Dallas-based airline: It is currently the airport’s largest carrier and served about two-thirds of all passengers last year.

Despite the varying styles of the new additions, Peterson and Brickbauer’s 1979 pavilion proved to be at the forefront of a shift to the space-frame terminals that are conventional among airports today. (Peterson died in 2010.) The structure has also become a key part of the local landscape. “As somebody from Maryland, it made me proud we had a decent airport,” says Gunts.

BWI in the 1980s
Courtesy of BWI Airport
Rendering of the 1979 pavilion
Peterson and Brickbauer, courtesy of Charles Brickbauer
BWI today
Edward Russell
BWI today
Edward Russell
BWI in the 1980s
Courtesy of BWI Airport
BWI in the 1980s
Courtesy of BWI Airport