The New KCI: SOM Kind of Airport

Departures level entrance. Photo by Lucas Blair Simpson, courtesy of SOM

It’s hard to leave home, but Kansas City has given us good reason to do so with the new Kansas City International air terminal. With its flying canopy and epic structural spans, the terminal stands as gleaming temple of aviation—an inviting gateway to the heavens in the middle of flyover country. Fronted by a near-monolithic, 6,000-space parking garage, the $1.5 billion facility is the largest infrastructure project in Kansas City’s history and, interestingly, is also the largest public art project in the city’s history. Architecturally, the building is worthy of its own exhibit: stroll anywhere in its well-lit spaces and you’re sure to admire the honesty of expression in construction and notice recurring motifs in every joint, panel, seam and surface.

The 1.1 million square-foot terminal was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the legendary architecture firm behind the Sears tower in Chicago and many other famous skyscrapers, office buildings, and yes, airports. The firm is known for pushing the boundaries of architectural systems and design and the spacious new terminal continues in that tradition. The building is a functional feast of modular systems, with every dimension laser-cut to exacting detail. Lawrence local (and friend of Lawrence Modern) Matt Schwabauer, a senior project manager with Clark Construction, the design-build firm that built the terminal, worked with SOM for six years on the project and can attest to the company’s fastidiousness. “Most of us have never dealt with that level of specification,” Schwabauer said. “They controlled everything, right down to the orientation of the carpet pile.”

Wanting to learn more, Lawrence Modern’s Bill Steele recently contacted architect Jordan Pierce, SOM’s senior designer on the project. Pierce was largely responsible for the building’s look and feel and says the work of contemporary architects such as Alberto Kalach, David Chipperfield, and Peter Zumthor informed his ideas. “I’m interested in simple, thoughtful, elegant designs,” Pierce says. “Honest use of structure and materials and real attention to detailing are just some of the things that get me excited.”

A bit of a latecomer to architecture, Pierce studied English literature in college and worked as a communications strategist for nonprofits and foundations before finding a passion for buildings. “I wanted to be involved in something where I could feel there was a product at the end of the day that was lasting and physical,” Pierce said. He went back to school, took night classes in calculus prerequisites, and put together a portfolio of things he had done in his spare time such as woodworking and drawing. He was accepted into the Yale School of Architecture and hired by SOM soon after graduation in 2013. Today, Pierce works out of the firm’s San Francisco office, where he discussed his work on the project and thoughts on airport design with Steele a month after the terminal opened in March.

This was a massive project. In terms of the architectural design, how big was it, and what was your specific role?

It was huge. I would have to say that the over the life of the project we easily had 100 architects work on the project. And we really did design and work as a collective. We had a great team of folks, not only with SOM [Skidmore, Owings & Merrill] but also working with a number of local firms in Kansas City. We also worked with three local firms, Draw Architects, HJM, and Wellner Architects. My individual responsibilities on the project included concept design, thinking about the overall massing of the building, the look and feel, and working in particular on the passenger spaces. My title is something like Senior Designer for the project, and a lot of that is thinking about the actual look and feel, the planning, layout and the experience for the passengers’ spaces in the building.

What were some of the general design requirements for the scope of work that you were given?

As we sometimes do, we inherited a study that had already thought through a good number of the requirements for the building. So we knew that there was a requirement for 39 gates, we knew the general square footage, we knew the organization that the airport wanted for all the pieces. An important part of the design were the public meetings that we did early in the process. Before we ever put pencil to paper we did dozens of community design meetings throughout Kansas City and into Kansas as well. We met with over a thousand people to talk about what was important for folks in the building. And we heard a mix of things, and many made their way into the building in some form or another. So one was, people wanted to maintain the convenience of the existing terminals, that was really important to folks. Also, the public wanted the building to embody a forward-looking spirit of Kansas City, that it should really reflect not just KC as it is but where KC sees itself in the decades to come. We also heard that people wanted the building to be really welcoming on the whole, and that’s embodied in a pretty extraordinary suite of amenities in the building, but it’s also embodied in the incorporation of a lot of warmer, more natural materials than you’re accustomed to seeing in an airport.

I definitely felt that the first time I walked into the main hall on the second level. What was your overall design intent for the terminal?

There’s a term used in airports called processors, which is that you’re trying to get people through various processes in the building. You’re checked in; you go through security; bag drop-off; bag claim. And that there’s a tendency in airport design to create buildings that express a machine-like character, and for this project and for many of the projects that we do, it’s critical for us that the building is efficient, that’s it’s modular, that it’s easily constructible, that we’re really considering the details. But we’re trying to make buildings that people really want to spend time in, which may sound like an oxymoron for an airport. For KCI and all the buildings that we do it’s really important to us that the buildings feel welcoming and inviting, and that goes everything from the introduction of natural light, the proportion of the spaces, and the materials themselves are really important in creating that feeling. So as you walk around the terminal you might see it’s not just the hemlock ceilings, it’s the also the natural Missouri limestone that’s incorporated throughout the entirety of the building. It’s choosing even the material of the walls, which isn’t your standard white gypsum board that you see everywhere. Rather it’s a large format porcelain tile in massive five-foot by ten-foot sheets that has a real character to it. What we’re trying to do in this building and other buildings is come up with a way to bring all of those elements together to create a truly inviting space for passengers that we hope adds something to an experience that for many people can be really stressful.

Tell us more about the limestone. Whose idea was it to use that material?

There’s no single author. We looked at a bunch of different of ideas of what it could be, but once we made it down to the quarry and really looked at the material, I think we all felt it was absolutely the right thing to do for the building. It’s from a quarry in southern Missouri outside of Springfield called Phenix, an old quarry from the 1800s. It was shut down and only recently reopened this past decade or so. The material from the quarry was used in the Missouri statehouse, it was used in the New York Stock Exchange, it’s been used all over the country and all over the world. It has a character to it that really feels civic, that feels substantial, like it’s in a building that is going to last the test of time. And in addition to that real civic character, which drew it to us, is the story of Missouri geology that it tells. It’s a sedimentary rock, so when you look at that back wall you can see these horizontal striations that run along the length. And we use it in two different ways. If you look at that back wall, you see that where the steel columns are located behind that wall. There the stone is rotated, so that the striations run vertically to express the vertical nature of the structure. Because when you cut the stone that way, you’re really cutting through millennia of time as you’re seeing all of those sediments of when Missouri was a shallow sea. You’ll see a variety of fossils in there as well. So, when the stone is vertical we’re cutting the stone vertically. When the stone is used as a horizontal surface in the building, we’re cutting stone horizontally—as in the benches at the departures curb. There you’re cutting through the shelf horizontally, and really through a moment in time. It’s got two really beautiful aspects depending on the way you cut it.

Yet while the building has the solidity of that stone, it also has this lightness. How were you able to achieve that and how would describe the overall architectural expression of the building?

Some of the ideas that were at the heart of the international style persist in what we do as a firm. The idea of really thinking about the character of the building based on manufacturing methods and modules, understanding how the building is built and how that might influence the aesthetic in the end. With a building like an airport you want to come up with a series of architectural systems that are repeatable and can be easily assembled, come together as a whole. And so you’ll see as you look at the building, there are at the departures level a few main areas where we’re using similar systems in different ways. It’s this combination of steel structure that is kind of infilled with these warmer, more natural materials. To create that feeling of lightness in the building, it was really about working with the proportion of each space and designing structural modules that really worked well with introducing natural light. Tuning the ceiling height to the program in particular was a big focus for us—that each of the spaces has a proportion that’s really tuned to the function of the space. So when you go to the check-in hall and that sort of massive span—it’s a single span running the whole length—of about a hundred feet, because of the scale of that space, keeping the ceiling at thirty-five feet, keeping it really high, we felt was important with additionally having clerestories in the center of the building and each of the structural bays so that we’re bringing light into the heart of that deeper space.

We spent a long time thinking about how to size each space for its use. So it’s a whole sequence of volumes, right? You come through the kind of grand space of the check-in hall. There’s a moment of compression when you go through security. It opens up again when you get to the retail, it feels a little bit more like a kind of town hall or a kind of a civic space there. And then each of the volumes changes in size as you move through, but there’s a break at each where you see light above the transition to the space beyond—I don’t know if you picked up on that—but there’s a clerestory above the limestone wall in the check-in hall. There’s a clerestory above the concourse as you’re transitioning from the retail space down into the concourse and then the concourse itself has its own sequence of clerestories. So the hope was that no matter where you are in the terminal, you’re always able to see light coming from a level above.

I did notice the extensive use of clerestories, which I really like. What are some other things that people might not notice about the architecture but nevertheless be subconsciously affected by?

One thing that most people might not notice is that those big Y columns at the front of the building, they exist in miniature above the check-in hall, above the check-in desks. So when you get close to the check-in desk you’ll see that in a horizontal application, that same form is coming out. There are actually a whole bunch of things in the airport that have a motif of these kind of eased edges that the Y columns have. You’ll notice that there’s a geometric figure called a disco rectangle, or an obround, which is two semicircles joined by straight lines like a pill shape. Versions of that appear throughout the airport so that the vestibules have these rounded edges, even the planters in the front of the building have them. So there’s a kind of motif of those things that you’re close to, that you touch, that have kind of a tactile quality to them by virtue of that shared geometry of that rounded edge. Same with all of the check-in desks, all of the info desks—that eased edge appears over and over again throughout the building. So I don’t know if it comes through, but it was something that we were really thinking about throughout the design.

Walking through the airport also I had the sense that I was in a very orderly, methodical space where everything feels perfectly aligned.

Yeah, yeah. The old joke is that SOM stands for stay on module. There’s a rigor to what we try and do, and I think that module, the structural module, which is generally thirty feet within the building, is very economical. So choosing thirty feet means that we can do everything with simple W sections [wide-flange beams] in terms of the spans. In other words, we don’t have to go to trusses, we don’t have to go to big built-up box beams. It’s a very simple, economical module. That thirty-foot module got subdivided into tens, and then fives. So all the exterior walls are at ten feet and all of the porcelain tile panels on the wall at five feet wide, and that’s also a subdivision that we use for the ceiling. Everything falls into it and I think you’re right, even if you don’t see it, you feel it. What we’re trying to do always is to make these spaces feel calm, feel ordered, and hopefully that has a psychological impact on travelers.

Baggage claim area. Photo by Lucas Blair Simpson, courtesy of SOM

I felt comfortable, which I suppose is the same thing as meaning calm. The other thing I noticed was that everything looked very flush mounted, whether it was the lighting, the advertising displays, the signage, or whatever. This seems a bit different from what I’ve experienced in other airports.

There’s so much that goes into an airport between, you know, concessions, advertisements, way finding, the various amenities, there’s a lot to compete for your attention. So part of how we see our task is that the base buildings, as we call it, if it can have enough simplicity and strength, then it’s not competing for attention with all those many things that fit into it. Having the base building provide a clarity, a calmness, and order really allows those concessions to come forward and be interesting and exciting but not in any way feel chaotic. Part of that is things like you’re pointing out, like providing recesses in the wall so that all of the advertisements are flush. We had to coordinate all of that with the structure. The whole wall has to be designed so that we can allow that to be within that depth. It’s part of an overall effort to say, can we give enough simplicity and clarity to the base building and the many elements that fit into so that it doesn’t have the kind of chaos that can add to what’s already a very anxiety inducing experience many times.

Speaking of simplicity, can you talk a bit about the design of the colorful restroom entries, which I felt like exploring even though I had no need to go to the restroom. Did you have any role in that design?

We did the design of the bathrooms in partnership with DRAW Architects, a local Kansas City firm. They were one of our subs on the architecture side, a great firm run by a woman named Dominique Davison. They hadn’t done an airport bathroom before, but they’re very thoughtful and talented designers so it was great to work with them on that. The bathrooms are in many ways some of the most technologically advanced parts of the entire terminal. [Laughs].

Photo by Lucas Blair Simpson, courtesy of SOM

I can believe that.

I don’t know if you noticed the occupancy indicators above each stall, the red light green light, just like the parking garage? That then feeds into the display at the entrance that indicates the number of stalls that are open on either side, which makes things a lot easier hopefully for passengers. And then also all of the accessories are actually building maintenance system integrated. So they report back to the to the building maintenance system how many paper towels have been used and squirts of the soap dispenser and all that, so that they know when to cycle their maintenance through. So there’s a lot that went into that, but I think in terms of the way that we think about the bathrooms, you want the bathroom to read as something that is in contrast to the standard finishes of the building so that it has a way finding element to it. And so there we chose a back-painted acid etched glass that that forms those walls. It has this very light acid edge that gives the colors a kind of softness to them.

Yeah, it’s quite beautiful in person actually.

And so that same color is used in two locations. Right behind the lavoratories are a tile and I want to say it’s a four-to-one format horizontal tile that has kind of a hand-glazed finish to it. There’s a sort of soft ombre back there in a place that has mostly, maybe not machined materials, but very precise materials used throughout the building. It’s one of those locations where you’re right in contact with the material and you’re dealing with it up close and it has an almost handmade quality to it, which felt nice as a contrast, but it still fit within the overall color scheme. So those tiles have the same color as the back-painted glass that is the entrance, and the all-genders are green, the women’s are yellow, the men’s are blue. The lighting in the bathrooms is a little bit moody. It’s a little bit lower lighting levels than you might have elsewhere, which I like. It doesn’t feel like you walk in and you’re in an operating room being blasted with, you know, 4000 degrees Kelvin lighting. And actually throughout the entirety of the terminal, all the lighting is at 3000 degrees Kelvin, so it’s a much warmer light than you would normally experience.

I think that definitely enhances the overall comfort you feel in the terminal. It’s also good for artwork, which I would like to ask you about. Although I like a lot of the art displays, my wife was disappointed that it doesn’t appear to have been thematically coordinated in any way. I wonder how you feel about the artwork. Was there a concern that it might distract or detract from the architecture?

We always knew that there would be artwork within the terminal, and as we were designing the spaces, we knew certain places were going to be the sites of artwork. We knew that at the A node, that central space, was going to be some sort of a fountain element. We liked the idea of having art in the concourses and having it be something different in each location but the way that the art was selected is that there were individual committees assigned to each of the art pieces. So there was a committee for the head of the house, there was a committee for the fountain in the A node, and there was one committee to select all the pieces that went into the concourse. But your wife is correct that there is not an overarching curatorial vision. But that was partially by the design of the Municipal Arts Commission in the process, so some of the pieces I like more or less than the others but I think it’s nice that there is some richness added to the overlay to the architecture and additionally that there is enough variety that as you’re leaving from a gate that maybe you haven’t left before, you’ll see something you haven’t seen before. And there are different pieces that work at different scales and distances. There’s some that are really detailed. You’ve got to get up close to understand. There’s some that are a bit more quickly taken in from a distance.

Perhaps she’ll change her mind the next time she flies out of MCI. For me, I felt disappointed about the long passageway to get to the domestic concourse, which is something common nowadays in airports. At the old terminals, you know, you got in there, took care of your business at the counter and didn’t have to walk very far to your gate. Was there a constraint there that caused this?

We had a constraint in terms of the physical layout of the space. There’s an active taxiway on the outside [of the terminal] that formed the western boundary of what we could build. That determined where the outside of that outer concourse could be and so the footprint had to be fairly compact within that space. So that was a fairly significant constraint that we had. But as with any project also we had our program. We had to fit the number of gates that we had, and also the aircraft mix that we were required to use. All of those were constraints that we were dealing with throughout the entire design process.

I’m sure there were many others. It seems like airports are a real specialty of yours. Is this the first airport terminal you’ve worked on?

I’ve worked on a number of aviation jobs within our firm but this is the first domestic airport terminal I’ve worked on. I work on a variety of building types, not just airports, but airports are a type that I find really fascinating and really enjoy working on, as a specialty. This year we’re opening a new terminal in Bangalore, India, which is going to be a pretty spectacular building. It really takes the integration of plant life and planting to new heights. Bangalore is the garden city of India and the airport has this sort of massive garden that runs all the way through the terminal between the check-in hall and the concourses in a way that’s going to be pretty impressive.

Best of luck with that and I hope to visit India someday and see the airport. Likewise, for those of us living here in Kansas, and who love great architecture, you’ve given us all good reason to go to the airport a bit earlier just to look around.

Thank you. I’m very glad to hear that.

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