Capturing a City in ‘Frozen Music’

Building Pittsburgh’s new, smart airport with a design that reflects the region

By Kristin Mageras

Published February 20, 2019

Read Time: 4 mins


“Music is liquid architecture; architecture is frozen music.”

That’s how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the 18th century German writer and statesman, described the structural design of his day. The lines, the curves and the materials all represent notes in a musical piece that, when looked at as a whole, display the architect’s opus.

For those charged with building the world’s smartest airport, the composition is intended to be perfectly Pittsburgh. The building must reflect the topography, industry and ethos of the region. The design concept must involve experts directly from the Pittsburgh community. And the finished product should reflect a sense of the place, whether overtly, like concessions, or more subtly, like an art installation.

Here’s a snapshot of how a team of architects and engineers are composing the frozen music of Pittsburgh International Airport’s new, modern terminal.

The Region

In coming up with the conceptual design for the terminal, the team of architects and engineers looked at the physical nature of the region, the city’s transformation into a technology hub and the sense of community that is uniquely Pittsburgh.

These three elements formed the concept of “NaTeCo” – a mash-up of nature, technology and community – and also formed the basis for the overall design philosophy. The approach will continue to inform the structure as we move from groundbreaking in late 2019 to opening in 2023.

“As part of the inspiration process, we analyzed the city on a variety of conceptual levels,” said Alvaro Ferrer Delgado, design manager for luis vidal + architects. “For our team, seeing Pittsburgh for the first time, the topography struck them, the rolling hills, how green it was and, of course, the rivers.

“Then we went on an immersion session to get to know the city,” he said. “What began to emerge were the concepts of NaTeCo, and then we proceeded to bring all of these elements together.”

Representatives from luis vidal + architects share an early version of the design concept with Allegheny County Airport Authority staff. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

The Firms

Having Pittsburgh involved in the process happened in several ways. Employees—who will spend much of their waking time in and around the facility—were asked to weigh in through a series of charrettes – focused sessions to help guide and inform the design.

There were surveys of Pittsburghers, both online and at various events throughout the city. A guiding Advisory Group and a series of Working Groups each focused on one aspect of the terminal and its function.

Perhaps the most mindful inclusion of Pittsburgh was the selection of not one, but three firms to complete the project: luis vidal + architects; HDR Engineering, based in Pittsburgh for nearly 80 years; and Gensler, an architecture, planning, and design firm that designed and built PNC Tower in Downtown Pittsburgh. The firms were chosen for their commitment to serving the Pittsburgh market and for their experience at delivering world-class terminal facilities.

“In bringing ‘Pittsburgh’ into the terminal, we also looked at who’s using the facility, the passenger experience,” said Carolyn Sponza, senior associate at Gensler.

“There’s uniqueness to the Pittsburgh passenger experience. For instance, there is a longer dwell time for meeters and greeters, so the new main terminal will be designed to provide a great experience for Pittsburghers picking up their friends and relatives at the airport,” Sponza said.

“The building’s architecture and materials will be reflective of the region, but so will the design of the space itself.”

The Products

To ensure a sense of place, the firms needed to look no further than what’s been happening at the existing terminal over the last three or four years. The local shops, services, artwork, performances and other amenities let you know you’re in Pittsburgh the minute you land.

That will continue with the new terminal, but instead of finding things to occupy an existing space, the terminal will have these products already built in to the DNA of the structure. One secret weapon: Renee Piechocki, an artist and public art consultant.

“Renee is deeply engrained in the art scene in Pittsburgh and understands the importance of the connection between local art and the pride that Pittsburghers have in it,” said Ty Osbaugh, principal and global practice area leader in Aviation and Transportation at Gensler.

Piechocki will work with airport’s arts and culture manager to help identify places where art can be integrated into the terminal design.

“These artists and product developers are helping us work on what kind of materials, products, art, etc. should be available in the new terminal,” said Osbaugh.

For more on Pittsburgh International Airport’s Terminal Modernization Program, visit

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