The Federal Aviation Administration’s request for a uniform image of flight safety across the United States summoned a prototypical state-of-the-art air traffic control tower to replace outmoded facilities. A significant departure from Pei’s normally site-specific work, this commission required a generic tower that could be built anywhere/everywhere, adaptable for all airports, large and small, with and without radar.
The solution was a non-directional pentagram, consisting of a kit of three parts that could be mixed and matched according to need:
1) A prefabricated control cab with non-reflective windows and standardized equipment consoles that would be immediately familiar to FAA controllers no matter where they were assigned
2) A customized base building excavated into the ground, out of view, for technicians who only needed to see their instrument panels, not the airfield
3) A freestanding architectural concrete tower splayed slightly at the base for lateral stability, tapering gracefully in the middle to the minimum dimension required to house an elevator, stairs, and cables, and then flaring out at top to receive the controllers’ metal cab. Five standard heights were established, ranging from 60 to 150 feet. Of the 70+ towers originally intended, 17 are known to have been built by the FAA (not all with the involvement of Pei’s firm) before a different administration opted for other schemes that favored low-cost over aesthetics.
An alternative tower with a simple metal-frame was developed for small airports where pilots depended on visual flight rules (VFR) rather than on instrumentation. Scores of these “O-Types” were sent to Viet Nam and other airstrips overseas; a number were built in the U.S.
The fast-paced evolution of aviation technologies has rendered many of the FAA towers obsolete. Some have been remodeled, others decommissioned or demolished. In 2021, the FAA repeated its 1960s initiative in launching a competition to design a new prototypical air traffic control tower with the invitation: “Are You The Next…I.M. Pei” (faa.gov/tower-design)
The FAA Air Traffic Control Tower project was an early outgrowth of President John F. Kennedy’s initiative to improve the quality of federal buildings. In 1962, with the encouragement of the President and First Lady Jackie Kennedy, Najeeb Hallaby, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, invited influential parties to advise him on design, including William Walton, a close friend of the Kennedy’s. The connection proved significant. After JFK’s assassination the following year, Walton served as Mrs. Kennedy’s personal advisor in the selection of an architect for the Kennedy Library.
Design Team: I.M. Pei, Partner-in-charge; James Ingo Freed, Design Architect
I. M. Pei & Associates