Control Towers possess a modernist romanticism, exalting the innocent wonder of progress and the quiet dignity of well-functioning equipment. Like Epcot and the Concorde, I.M. Pei’s iconic design—which has been ubiquitous at airports across the country since he won an FAA-sponsored competition in 1962—perfectly captured that era’s spirit. In 2021, PAU led the team that submitted the winning entry in an open design competition that the FAA couched as the sequel to that midcentury contest. Towers will be built at an initial set of 31 candidate airports across the country.
PAU’s design addresses the paradox of the next generation of towers: how to reinterpret Pei’s magic while acknowledging that the future is far less certain than the luminaries of yesteryear thought it to be—both in terms of technology and the health of our planet. The result is a strategy born of today’s exigencies: lyrical in its economy of materials; heroic in its respect for fiscal and environmental costs; and elemental in its ability to be adapted and reconfigured to meet the needs of a multitude of sites across the nation.
Following the time-honored tradition of modernist populism, our team found inspiration in the public infrastructure of the American countryside, in which a synergy between architecture and engineering elevates the systems that enable our daily lives. It is through this ethos that we arrived at our submission’s name, F4: Form Follows Function with Flair. The F4 Tower’s design emerges from the same principles of functionality, efficiency, and redundancy that drive the form of lighthouses, grain elevators, and water towers that dot the horizon of the American landscape. Yet intertwined with this hardnosed pragmatism is an inseparable insistence on beauty; a clear, bold aesthetic sensibility that celebrates its function and efficiencies to derive a distinctly American form of iconicity. Like a well-tailored suit, it possesses an economy of material that is integral to its elegance. Maintenance crews, capital planners, and (of course) controllers will love the way it works, but it is the heroic flair of the architecture that will inspire the love of the communities it serves.
Our team of international industry leaders collaborated extensively, enabling a seamless merging of architecture and engineering: the design is the engineering, and the engineering is the design. This partnership yielded a tower that is a finely-tuned machine for air traffic control; one that is as much defined by supporting the specialized mechanical equipment it houses as the operators themselves, providing an environment with optimal conditions for both the systems and the humans that run them. Sustainable and resilient design elements are woven throughout the design, realizing a seamless integration that addresses the concerns of today, embraces the needs of tomorrow, and ensures ongoing performance, function, and operation.
The resulting design also achieves a broad range of efficiencies in construction. Materials, systems, and components have been chosen for their performance as well as their ability to contribute to cost and schedule control by being available and accessible to the widest range of contractors and geographies while not compromising life-cycle performance. F4 has emerged from needs and constraints, yet it is the elegance with which it exceeds, embraces, and elevates these demands that provides the tower its flair; the same spirit of an “elegant engineering of the everyday” that made its agrarian and maritime precedents much-beloved landmarks throughout America.