Will BWI become just another mall in the crowd? TERMINAL EXCESS

ARCHITECTURE REVIEW

February 06, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

Unless state aviation administrators can be convinced to change course, Maryland will soon lose a masterwork of modern architecture.

No wrecking balls or blasts of dynamite are expected, but the damage will be devastating just the same. And it will occur

where the state can least afford to make a bad impression: at a key entry point used by millions of tourists and business travelers every year.

The landmark in danger of disappearing is the main concourse of Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

When it opened in 1979, the terminal was a clean, crisp, uncluttered frontispiece for Baltimore's old Friendship Airport -- an elegant modern building that captured the essence of flight and gave the entire operation a sparkling new image.

Now this memorable public space is about to be mauled, literally, and replaced with a warm and fuzzy shopping mall facsimile.

The proposed change is part of a $16.3 million "enhancement program" that the Maryland Aviation Administration is launching to "freshen up" the airport, which has begun to show signs of wear after handling more than 100 million passengers in 14 years. It would be the first face lift for the terminal since a $64.5 million modernization and expansion was completed in 1979.

But instead of going back to the design team that did such a good job the last time, the aviation administration hired different architects. They've proposed that the minimalist concourse be filled with a smorgasbord of shopping mall cliches -- including graphics, lights, plants and photos -- and enough carpet to cover a runway.

Heard of the festival marketplace? This would be a variation on the theme: the festival airport. The administrators and their architects say they want to make the terminal a more distinctive and memorable gateway to Maryland and the District of Columbia. The trouble is, they don't seem to realize what a powerful gateway they already have. Rather than enhancing Maryland's busiest airport, this mundane make-over would ruin it. It would also be an intolerable waste of public funds -- the ultimate BWI boondoggle.

Civic gateway

No one can dispute that renovations are long overdue at the airport. Floor tiles are cracked. Graphics are mismatched. Certain spaces could be more user-friendly. And many elements of the state's plan, due to get under way before spring, are headed in the right direction.

One good idea is a $500,000 sculpture garden called "Seasons of Flight," proposed for the area between the terminal and the 2,800-car garage that opened in 1991. Another intriguing addition is a large "sky window" and observation lounge that would give visitors an overview of the airfield while doubling as a miniature air and space museum.

Also planned, but not part of this project, are: a new international terminal; a light-rail stop; and Maryland Marketplace, a shopping area and food court that would be between the present terminal and the international terminal. These are far-sighted investments, worth pursuing.

What makes the current effort so alarming is the costly and insensitive treatment proposed for the main concourse, the airport's signature feature.

As designed by Peterson and Brickbauer of Baltimore and others, the 1,200-foot-long concourse is one of the most successful works of modern architecture ever commissioned by the state of Maryland.

Its light and airy interior, beneath a space-frame roof that seems to float above the red tile columns, is so uplifting it almost seems airborne. Strong graphics and theatrical lighting enable visitors to grasp the travel process easily, while lending a certain dignity and ceremony to the travel experience. One of the most innovative design features is a giant frieze of repeated airline logos high above the ticket counters, showing where each carrier is located.

The terminal works well, too. No airport has a shorter walking distance between the automobile drop-off area and the main check-in counters than BWI. No airport has a more logical and legible circulation system. In passenger surveys, it consistently ranks as one of the country's best-liked and easiest-to-use terminals. And in the architectural press, the design has drawn the highest of praise.

Its "fresh imagery" gives "new power to the symbolic concept of the airport as civic gateway," Architectural Record editor Charles Hoyt wrote in 1980. "Seldom has information been conveyed with such entertaining and theatrical effect."

High tech, high touch

That "fresh imagery" would disappear under the renovation plan recommended by the state's design team, headed by Greiner Inc. of Timonium. It also includes Cambridge Seven Associates, architects of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and Graham Landscape Architecture.

They propose the installation of patterned carpet to replace the cracked tile floors, and indoor landscaping in undulating planters that would wrap around the red columns.

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