‘An Opportunity to Catapult the Airport Well Into the 21st Century’

SOM Has Done Some of Its Best Work on Its More than Two Dozen Major Airport Projects, Dating Back to the 1950s and Involving More than $24 Billion Worth of Construction

Barring another City Council revolt like the one that sent a publicly approved plan for a new airport into a tailspin last fall, Kansas City will be getting a new airport designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). SOM is one of the oldest and largest architectural, urban planning and engineering firms in the nation, with an airport track record second to none. The proposed $1 billion single terminal — the largest capital project in the city’s history — will replace the three existing terminals built more than four decades ago.

On February 8, the City Council and Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate, which leads the team of developers of the new airport, finalized a Memorandum of Understanding that lays out the framework for the project. Design plans for the new terminal remain a work in progress.

Nevertheless, SOM’s preliminary drawings point to an exciting, new single terminal that, as Edgemoor’s Managing Director, Geoffrey Stricker, put it, provides “an opportunity to catapult the airport well into the 21st century.”

In presenting the drawings at a City Council meeting on October 5, Derek Moore, Director of Aviation Practice at SOM, pointed to some of the highlights prepared for the KCI project, including an approach to the terminal that “makes reference to the boulevards of Kansas City” and a two-level structure, where passengers would arrive on the lower level and depart on the upper level, and be moved about on moving walkways.

The terminal would measure some 750,000 square feet (capable of being expanded), with larger gate waiting areas that would be less crowded and more convenient for travelers than the existing KCI. It would offer 35 gates (expandable to 42), be framed by large glass walls, and feature a pedestrian bridge from a new 6,500-spot parking garage adjacent to the terminal.

At the same October 5 meeting, Peter Lefkovits, an associate director at SOM, pointed to a proposed two-story fountain with technology to display custom messages on the cascading water, as the focal point for the departure hall, picking up on the local theme of a “city of fountains.”

The terminal might also include a central piazza, which could double as a space for art installations and scenes from historic Kansas City and as a venue for musical entertainment and other live performances.

However, as Derek Moore made clear in a January telephone interview, these are preliminary drawings including basic design principles and ideas drawn from initial conversations with the city’s Aviation Department and the airlines, and their first impressions of the city. Since then, Edgemoor and SOM have spent weeks hosting design workshops throughout Kansas City and Johnson County, listening to what people want to see in the new airport.

So, as we wait to see what SOM comes up with in its next set of drawings, just who is the architectural firm, SOM?

SOM was formed in Chicago in 1936 by Louis Skidmore and Nathaniel Owings. John Merrill joined them three years later, by which time they had opened an office in New York City. Now they have offices around the world. Today, with more than 10,000 projects to its name in 50 countries, SOM is not only one of the largest architectural firms in the world, it has also received more than 1,700 awards for quality and innovation, and over 200 design awards, more than any other design firm in the country.

SOM led the way in the use of the modern international style, or as it is more commonly known, the “glass box” skyscraper. They have designed several of the tallest and best-known buildings in the world, as well as others that have become American icons, like the 100-story John Hancock Building in Chicago (1969), the nearby 110-story Willis Tower, more popularly known as the Sears Tower (1973) and the World Trade Center (the Freedom Tower) — built in New York City on the site of the 9/11 attack, and the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.

A Brief Tour of Some of SOM’s Previous Airport Designs

Kansas City stands to reap the benefits of all this experience — and more. SOM has done some of its best work on its more than two dozen major airport projects, dating back to the 1950s and involving more than $24 billion worth of construction. Following is a tour of just some of their outstanding airport designs.

  • In 1972, SOM completed a unique airport project, namely the Hajj Terminal at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. As the name suggests, the terminal was specially built for Islamic pilgrims making their annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The 5 million-square-foot terminal was designed to accommodate more aircraft than any other airport in the world and to handle as many as 80,000 passengers at a time. Architecturally it was unique for its tent-like roof structure.
    Ten modules, each consisting of 21 “tents” of white Teflon-coated fiberglass fabric suspended from pylons, are grouped together in two blocks of five modules, separated by a landscaped mall. The entirety of the complex is a flexible, open area, designed to function like a village, complete with a market and mosque. The Hajj Terminal received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1983 for “the brilliant and imaginative design of the roofing system” and its “incomparable elegance and beauty.”
  • Also impressive for their ultra-modern designs, as well as their size and capacity to handle millions of passengers, were the SOM-designed Terminal 3 for Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, Philippines in 1997, and San Francisco International Airport’s International Terminal, opened in 2000.
    The $640 million, 2 million-square-foot Ninoy Aquino terminal was designed to accommodate as many as 13 million passengers per year. At its completion, San Francisco’s International Terminal, built over the main airport access road, was the largest international terminal in North America, and it remains the largest building in the world built on base isolators to protect against earthquakes.
    Designed to make it a destination in and of itself, not just for travelers, the terminal houses the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, as well as the SFO Medical Clinic, which provides medical services for travelers and workers. All international arrivals and departures are handled in the same building, housing all ticketing areas, check-in counters, and gates shared among international airlines and several domestic carriers.
  • In 2004, SOM designed a new International Terminal at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. As originally designed, Terminal 3 was built to serve more than 10 million passengers per year, but that number has grown, leading to the addition of two additional concourses, with another under construction. The terminal consists of multiple levels and uses escalators and moving walkways to transport passengers. Like the San Francisco International Airport’s International Terminal, it includes a mall with shops, restaurants and a post office intended to attract non-flyers as well as flyers. After the main security check, passengers wait for their flights in a star-shaped rotunda, which also sports restaurants and duty-free shops open 24 hours, a synagogue, banking facilities and a desk for Value-Added Tax (VAT) refunds. The terminal also has three business lounges, one exclusively for frequent flyers and two for either privileged or paying flyers.
  • Also in 2004, in a joint venture, SOM and Moshe Safdie and Associates designed the new Terminal 1 at the Toronto Pearson International Airport. (Safdie is well known in Kansas City, most recently for his design of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.) At 4 million square feet, and an estimated cost of $3 billion, the crescent-shaped terminal is the largest at the airport and is among the largest buildings in the world by floor space, measuring 6 million square feet. It features four concourses extending from a central hub that accommodate retail shops and 77 gates. Linear skylights aligned between ticketing islands help orient departing passengers and provide “visual rhythm” within the curved departure hall. Beneath its wing-like roof, in addition to the usual customs and immigration facilities, Terminal 1 contains special customs checkpoints along the glass-floored international arrivals walkways for passengers who are connecting from an international flight to another international (non-U.S.) departure in the terminal. These passengers can go through passport control and immigration check points from the walkway, after which they may go directly to their departure gates, thereby not having to recheck bags and pass through security screening again.
  • Terminal 3 of Singapore’s Changi International Airport was completed in 2007. At a cost of $1.75 billion and with a capacity of up to 22 million passengers annually, this seven-level terminal is one of the most exciting of SOM’s airport designs. The steel and glass terminal is distinguished by its expansive rectilinear ceiling, which projects outward from the dramatic cantilever over the curbside across the main departure and arrival halls to the aircraft-apron on the other side. It features a layering of ceiling panels, baffles, over 900 skylights, and high-tech “butterflies,” which create an image that evokes a rainforest canopy. A 16-foot “Green Wall” with hanging creepers and a waterfall enhances the tropical feel and helps regulate the internal temperature with occasional misting. Thousands of aluminum louvers regulate direct sunlight entering through the skylights during the day, while at night artificial light reflects off the louvers to provide a unique pattern of illumination. Once again, the terminal was designed to be a “destination in its own right.”
  • One of SOM’s latest airport designs is Terminal 2 of the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai, India, completed in 2014. At a cost of $1.5 billion, the four-level terminal has 227,000 square feet of retail space, lounges and travel services. With its 192 check-in counters for departing passengers, 76 immigration counters for arriving passengers, as well as 48 escalators, 75 elevators, 42 moving walkways and 14 baggage carousels, the terminal is designed to handle 40 million domestic and international passengers annually. The terminal employs an innovative set of “swing facilities” intended to optimize facility utilization. The GVK Lounge won the “World’s Leading Airport Lounge — First Class 2015” presented at that year’s World Travel Awards ceremony held in Morocco. It is open to first-class and business-class travelers and offers a library, a business center, fine-dining options, a luxury spa and shower areas, and concierge services.

So just how far might Skidmore, Owings & Merrill catapult KCI into the 21st century?

Judging from their past projects, it could be a marvel.

Plans call for SOM to roll out revised plans in late spring, for breaking ground in 2018, and for completion of the new terminal in late 2021 or early 2022.

About The Author: Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau is retired from the University of Saint Mary, where he served as Professor of History, Provost, and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is the author of several books on American cultural and religious history.

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