Pittsburgh International Airport

March 31, 2019

Pittsburgh airport sprawls over a much larger area than warranted for a city of its size, with four wings spreading, 25 gates each, from a central atrium, which is itself an extension of two entry buildings connected via technotrain. Viewed from the plane approaching on the tarmac, it is a long low logistically determined structure made from the same stuff as the taxiway. An expression of cybernetic-inflected optimism of the early 70s but translated through the aesthetic culture ways of the late 80s, the terminal features extrusions of halfarches of glass, large maroon cubes with gate numbers, computerized trains to the security area and back, as well as a shopping nexus with over 100 shops. However, currently only about 50 of the 100 gates are regularly in use, and many of the 100 shops have downgraded to off-brand local chains or mom and pop souvenir outlets. Boarding areas are closed off with dry wall, accessible only through cheap domestic Home Depot doors—a sight common in dying shopping malls but not in major airports. In short, the terminal is an exuberant dream left gasping on a shoreline abandoned by the lowering tide of global capital.

The new terminal, despite its 70s, almost Paul Rudolphian aesthetic, was begun in 1987 and completed in 1992 to serve as a hub for US Airways. However, shortly after 9/11, the airline hit shaky skies and scaled down its operation to Philadelphia and Charlotte before ultimately going defunct when it merged with American Airlines in 2015. Pittsburgh airport was left without a major airline to justify its size.

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The departure reflected the fortunes of the city at large, hit with relocating industries and the after effects of white flight. In the case of the airport, the airlines were early intrepid explorers in the deployment of architecture as logistical node, having slowly consolidated regional airlines across the US into a few large behemoths and, at the same time, enabling the move toward hub and spoke models of air travel. Pittsburgh airport was a site chosen by US Airways for sentimental reasons, however. The airline was founded in Pittsburgh in 1939 as Allegheny Airlines, and started acquiring regional rivals including Lake Central Airlines and Mohawk Airlines. After the Airline Deregulation Act of 1979 allowed it to expand into the southeast, the name changed to USAir. It reached the West Coast in 1988 and Europe in the early 90s.

Now, the Pittsburgh airport languishes, with only slight maintenance encroaching on the million shades of beige that only the 1980s could muster. The shopping area has a Chik-Fil-A and two TGI Fridays. There is a dinosaur skeleton (T-Rex) between the escalators to the shuttle train. It smells like mildew. It would be nice if the airport were allowed to remain this way, just as the ramp of the Hagia Sophia has been allowed to be worn smooth by 1400 years of foot traffic. May Pittsburgh International Airport always be beige!

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