Part of redesign for BWI soars


If you are turned off by the prospect of the pseudo-shopping-mall look planned for Baltimore-Washington International Airport's main terminal, don't despair.

There will be a place at the airport to escape the orgy of bright lights, dangling letters, custom carpeting and giant photomurals planned for the main concourse -- whether you're waiting to board a flight or to greet an arriving passenger.

It's a $6.3 million "sky window" and observation lounge that will take shape on the south side of the terminal, in place of and above the passenger lounge where the multicolored serpentine sofas are now.

This glass-enclosed gallery is the most expensive item in the $16.3 million enhancement program planned for the airport and, fortunately, it's the best. Construction is scheduled to begin in March and be complete by year's end.

The observation lounge is a throwback to the 1950s and 1960s, when people went out to the old Friendship Airport's observation deck and watched planes take off and land for the sheer novelty of it.

Federal regulators subsequently prohibited open-air observation decks for security reasons. But state aviation administrators concluded the airport could recapture some of the romance of that popular perch by building a new lounge with a curving glass wall offering a panoramic view of the airfield. The south-side site was selected because it's possible to see three of the four major runways.

Greiner Inc. designed the basic shell, which will feature a space-frame roof similar to the one above the main concourse, except it will be tilted at a 30-degree angle. Cambridge Seven Associates took over from there, creating a multilevel space that offers something for just about everyone.

By far the cleverest idea was the decision to take cut-up parts of real commercial jetliners and display them like sculptures in a museum to give viewers a close-up view of the air traffic they see out the window. The "artifacts" will include a cockpit, wing, landing gear, engine, fuselage and tail section.

The lounge will be located off the service corridor that runs parallel to the main ticketing concourse. The first glimpse of it that visitors will see is the nose gear of a 747, hanging down from a hole in the ceiling.

Looking up, they'll see that it's attached to the front end of a jetliner, heading toward the terminal as if it's about to touch down in the main concourse. Runway lights embedded in the floor will add to the illusion. Walking even closer, they'll discover this is not a wrong-way flight at all but a well-preserved fragment of a commercial jetliner, signaling the entrance to the observation lounge.

From the service corridor, visitors will be able to take a stairway or glass elevator one flight up to the lounge's main level. The aluminum and glass entrance will evoke the polished metal skin of an aircraft.

The lounge itself will contain a series of spaces, including a cafe, a "museum shop" and a two-tiered viewing area. On one side will be flight simulators, weather forecasting equipment and other interactive exhibits focusing on topics such as how jets fly, what the ground crew does, and why airports have to close in bad weather.

"The notion is to give people some sort of appreciation of what's behind the activity on the airfield," said architect Richard Tuve. "It's to be a place where people can spend 10 minutes or two hours."

This unique observation lounge will be inventive, surprising, educational and fun. It's the kind of space Cambridge Seven does best. Here, the architects truly captured the spirit and excitement of air travel.

If only the rest of the airport overhaul did the same.

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