I. M. Pei’s Imprint on the FAA

Architect I.M. Pei is best known for works like the Louvre Pyramid and National Gallery of Art. But he also left a legacy at the FAA by designing a standardized air traffic control tower model that still stands at several locations today.

Photo: Copyright, Estate of Yousuf Karsh, via Smithsonian Institution

Story written by Daniel Glover, FAA Office of Communications

When architectural aficionados hear the name I. M. Pei, they may picture some of his best-known works, from the Louvre Pyramid in France to the National Gallery of Art East Building in Washington, D.C. What they may not remember is that as Pei skyrocketed to fame, he also left his imprint on the FAA.

Pei, who died May 16, 2019, at age 102, headed the firm that won a 1962 competition to design standard air traffic control towers. Although the agency eventually changed course in how it designs towers, it built several using the Pei firm’s design in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of them are still in use today.

“When we think of the iconic buildings designed by Pei and his firm, we often overlook the firm’s smaller projects,” FAA historian Terry Kraus said. “The simple but graceful air traffic control towers built using the firm’s design combined form with function, creating a modern workspace for FAA employees while at the same time enhancing airport aesthetics.”

A creative, disciplined imagination

Born in China, Ieoh Ming Pei came to the United States in 1935. He came to the FAA project in 1962 during an era of architectural change for both the federal government and the nation’s airports. President John F. Kennedy wanted federal buildings that showed “the dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability of the American national government,” and Congress wanted the FAA, rather than local communities, to build air traffic control towers.

Within that atmosphere, new FAA Administrator Najeeb Halaby appointed an Art in Aviation Advisors Committee in 1961. Its mission was to advise the Administrator on a program for designing towers that people would identify with the FAA and its safety mission.

“The committee agreed that these towers, while pieces of architecture, were also pieces of machinery and should be designed as a standard unit to be used anywhere,” according to the meeting minutes from Dec. 12, 1961. “This would enable one architect to work with one engineer on one typical design, resulting in economy as well as a well-designed tower structure.”

The committee named three potential architects at that meeting: Pei, Eliot Noyes and Paul Rudolph. A month later, the committee expanded the list to include Walter Gropius, Philip Johnson, Victor Lundy and Harry Weese, and agreed to interview any of them who were interested in the project.

All but Gropius made their pitches to a new Design Advisory Committee on March 15, 1962. They shared their basic design philosophies, and most of them presented photographs or drawings of their past work.

According to the minutes, Weese proposed standard designs that are “simple and flexible — an island set aside by landscaping and site orientation. It must be humanized and technological yet logical and convincing.” Noyes said the designs “should convey a strong and identifiable form — expressing aviation technology but not superficially and not dated by design.” Rudolph rejected the premise of a prototype design, saying instead that a variety of shapes and designs “should be controlled by the new airport architecture.”

Presenting with Eason Leonard, a partner in his firm, Pei told the committee “it was an exciting and challenging project which needed a fresh and creative approach since control towers had not been done well in the past,” according to the minutes.

The committee unanimously recommended Pei based on his “combined knowledge of structure, past experience, creativeness [and] disciplined imagination.” Halaby endorsed the decision April 20. “We are indeed fortunate in obtaining the services of an architect of his caliber,” he wrote to Design Advisory Committee Chairwoman Ailene Saarinen, the wife of Dulles International Airport architect Eero Saarinen.

Power from simplicity

Over the next several months, Pei’s firm designed two basic forms of towers. The book I.M. Pei: Complete Works describes the style for smaller airports as “a squat silo-like alternative, prefabricated in metal panels.” The other design, with a base building, shaft and cab as the three basic parts, was the more architecturally memorable.

Architectural Forum dedicated three pages to a story about the “handsome structure” in November 1963. “The tower’s simplicity of form belies the exacting research effort behind it,” the magazine said. “But perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Pei’s prototype is that it marks a fresh approach by another major federal agency to good design for its building program.”

Pei’s firm created 13 variations of the design so the FAA could mix and match the basic features according to airport needs. Architectural Forum noted that FAA engineers guided the design development, taking “a hefty ‘blue book’ of specifications” to Pei’s team in New York.

The FAA’s overarching goals included separating the towers from airport terminals, improving the visibility of controllers in the cab, moving support staff out of tight quarters in the shafts, and locating equipment and radar rooms in underground base buildings. “By adapting the landscaping of the base to the widely varying site conditions,” Architectural Forum said, “the tower complex can be made to fit comfortably into any situation.”

Working under a contract for up to 70 towers, Pei’s design team settled on five basic shaft heights between 60 feet and 120 feet, with the 150-foot prototype tower at Chicago O’Hare International Airport being the exception. That facility required the team to rent a sail maker’s warehouse in Brooklyn “to work out contour at full size on floor,” according to I.M. Pei: Complete Works.

The architects designed a pentagonal cab with single glazing at the corners of the windows to curtail reflections, increase visibility and provide adequate depth perception for controllers. Inside the factory-built cabs, which came in two sizes, controllers worked at a unified console built with their line of sight in mind. Cranes lifted the cabs atop the shafts. The base buildings were designed to accommodate expansions.

“From a functional standpoint, the tower will offer an optimum environment for both personnel and equipment to support the agency’s prime aims of operational safety and efficiency,” a 1962 agency press release said. Pei reiterated the point in a quote about his work that was included in the book: “Everything you see is the result of a purely functional requirement … Everybody can see the important part. It becomes powerful because it is so simple.”

Beauty and efficiency blended

The FAA debuted the Pei firm’s tower design for smaller airports first, according to April 1965 coverage in The Daily Oklahoman. The paper reported that Halaby flew an FAA-owned Lockheed Jetstar from Los Angeles to Lawton Municipal Airport for the dedication ceremony. Pei was among the dignitaries at the event, which also featured the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, barely a decade into their history at the time.

In an April 11 column headlined “Our Tower Architect Believes in Beauty, Efficiency,” Paul McClung quoted Pei as saying, “I hope we have proved that beauty and efficiency are not incompatible.”

The smaller design was built in places like Decatur, Illinois, and McAllen, Texas, according to news coverage of the day. But Pei’s larger tower design is the one that gets the attention as part of his legacy, including at a 2017 Harvard University symposium on Pei’s work.

“This clean-lined, graceful shaft should make a harmonious complement to the terminal building … and it is certainly preferable to the high-rise block type of tower such as the one at Logan airport, Boston, and some other cities,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote in 1967 about the 131-foot tower finished for that city in 1970.

‘The work of a master’

The Pei design lost favor in government circles after Halaby’s tenure as administrator ended in 1965, in part because of concerns over aesthetics versus costs. But a couple of years after Pei won the FAA contract, which connected him to President John F. Kennedy, he landed a more prestigious design project — the JFK Presidential Library and Museum. The Hartford Courant Sun said in 1967 that it culminated Pei’s rise to national prominence.

One of his subsequent works — the famous Sundrome terminal at JFK International Airport in New York — had an aviation connection, too. It was demolished in 2011, a development that Pei partner Henry Cobb lamented as the loss of “an exemplar of how architecture can contribute meaningfully to modern life.”

The meaningfulness of Pei’s work on air traffic control towers was still evident as Chicago pondered airport modernization at O’Hare in the mid-2000s. The FAA noted the significance of the prototype Pei tower in Chicago in its environmental impact statement about the modernization. The agency identified the tower as potential for the National Register of Historic Places because it “represents the work of a master,” it was a prototype, and it achieved “exceptional importance” in global airport design.

Have you worked in a Pei tower, past or present, small or large design? Let us know in the comments.

Images originally produced in FAA Horizons and FAA World, 1962–65

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