For much of his architectural career, William Pedersen has been thinking vertical.
As the major creative force behind the highly successful commercial architectural firm of Kohn Pedersen Fox, Pedersen has designed some of the most distinguished skyscrapers of the post-glassbox era. Today, examples of Pedersen's innovative take on the tall building can be found in numerous U.S. and Canadian cities, as well as in major centers in other parts of the world. Pedersen-designed skyscrapers grace the skylines of Boston; Washington, D.C.;Minneapolis; Honolulu; Montreal; London, England, and, of course, New York City, where more than a couple stir nostalgic echoes of the grand old days of Gotham City art deco.
Pedersen's vertical thinking reached new heights recently. Groundbreaking ceremonies were held in August for the Mori Shanghai building in Shanghai, China. At 1,510 feet and 113 stories, this high and mighty structure will be the tallest building in the world. (Pedersen shares the design honors with Josh Chaiken of Kohn Pedersen Fox.)
The Manhattan firm was founded in 1976 by Pedersen; Eugene Kohn, a man noted for his persuasive salesmanship, and Sheldon Fox, a creative manager of the first order. Shortly, the firm was winning major commercial commissions across the country (including the 1980 to 1985 addition to the then-Goldome Bank in Buffalo, now M&T Bank) and soon found itself cast in the big leagues alongside such giants as John Burgee, I.M. Pei, Kevin Roche and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
From the early '80s on Pedersen's designs were gobbling up architectural honors. Among the award-winners were the eminently graceful, carved-glass high-rise at 333 Wacker Drive in Chicago (1983) and -- a Pedersen favorite -- the sleek DG Bank Headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany (1993), with its slightly Buck Rogers-ish cantilevered crown. Then, in 1995, Pedersen's Greater Buffalo International Airport design won the prestigious Honor Award in the scheduled-to-be-built category from the New York City chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
With the Buffalo airport commission, Pedersen found himself confronting a special kind of architectural problem. Airports, by their nature, require low-profile structures with wide lateral reach. Before, his buildings had quite literally reached for the skies; this new airport would have to do some serious ground-hugging.
Pedersen says this coming down to earth was a stimulating experience. It wasn't that the horizontal structure was new territory for him. In between and along with his many skyscraper commissions he had done his share of low buildings. But never an airport. The inexperience turned out to be a solid advantage.
"This is our first opportunity to design an airport, and I think we were able to look at it from a different point of view," he says. "I think it allowed us to come off fresh."
Pedersen is standing in the center of the looming space of the grand ticketing hall of the new Buffalo airport. It's a cold spring day and workmen in hard hats whisk by en route to this or that job in the still-incomplete facility. Glass -- some 27,000 square feet of it -- runs across the entire long front of the building and around two showy, triangulated corners. On this gray day these big windows seem to be trying to squeak out as much light from the overcast Buffalo sky as possible, and they're doing a pretty good job of it.
"The eye is drawn to the corner in an upward swooping motion of form," says Pedersen, pointing at the ascending ceiling where it meets the uplifted corner windows. Here the glass comes together in a complex of chevron shapes like the prow of a ship and is supported inside by a distinctive treelike construction made of tubular steel.
"I thought of the corner windows as these huge crystalline pieces reaching out at you. It is quite spectacular, particularly at night from the outside. You might relate it to Wright's Unitarian Church."
Pedersen is talking about Frank Lloyd Wright's bold 1945 church design for Madison, Wis., which famously features a jutting assemblage of glass set under a sharply angled and cantilevered roof. He might also have mentioned Wright's Beth Sholom Synagogue of a few years later, another spectacular use of prowlike forms, which, in this case, make up a mountainous translucent roof.
Anybody designing a building in Buffalo can hardly avoid at least some passing thoughts of Wright, whose presence here rings down through architectural history in such masterworks as the Darwin D. Martin House (now in the midstage of renovation) and the razed Larkin Co. administration building, one of the key monuments of modern design.
Wright was always acutely conscious of the symbolic value of form, particularly in his designs for places of worship. The angled roof and glass of the Unitarian Church clearly stand for praying hands, and the glowing crystal-like interior of Beth Sholom can be seen as a metaphor for the omnipresent God (or from the outside, Moses' magic mountain).
Like Wright, Pedersen has a passion for this kind of symbolic language of form -- though, as is appropriate with an airport, his metaphors tend toward the high-flying rather than the high-flown. Pedersen's chief metaphor for the Buffalo design is, not surprisingly, flight.
"The first airport that was big on the theme of flight was Dulles (International Airport, outside of Washington, D.C.)," Pedersen says.
The hammock roof of this Eero Saarinen design is slung on cables attached to reinforced concrete piers that incline dramatically outward. "The effect is that the main form of the structure seems to hover in the air," says Pedersen.
In the Buffalo airport he has expanded on Saarinen's idea, borrowing the slung-roof look and moving it to the long front of the building. This use of a low, inverted arch dramatically demonstrates that "ground-hugging architecture" is a relative term. The building, low and long as it is, threatens to lift off the ground at the corners. The whole structure seems to hang from that swooping form (physically, a cantilevered cornice clad in aluminum) and is pulled back to earth only by those massive corner pieces.
"And then," says Pedersen, "there is plain observation: When you look at the building it appears like a bird's wing."
Inside you encounter another great arch -- this one in standard posture -- forming the back wall of the lobby. Pedersen points out that a slot of light can be seen over this solid arched wall, giving the impression that the entire curved ceiling is hovering a few inches off its base.
"I tried to juxtapose weight and airiness, to contrast earth and sky," he says. "Basic to flying is the relationship between the ground and sky. The back of the building is heavy and relates to gravity and the earth, while the front is a relatively free thing. The whole, I hope, is expressive of the nature of flight."
The theme of flight is further suggested by the long, double-pointed form that begins in the lobby as a pointed canopy over the security gates, becomes a floating roof as it travels over the concession area and ends beyond the concourse in another trim point. Dubbed "the surfboard," it is actually a gently warped shape that again recalls the aerodynamic structure of a bird's wing.
"This form takes your eye down the long perspective of the concession area, uniting the three sections of the building," says Pedersen.
The upper and lower levels of the terminal are also visually united. "The walk through the concession area is like crossing a bridge," Pedersen says. "Light wells on each side allow you to see the floor below. It is spacious yet comforting."
In the design of the concourse itself Pedersen markedly picks up the pace. Here, the perspective in each direction is exaggerated by a bowed wall on the clerestory side and diminishing distances between the angled support members. Pedersen sees this racing perspective as a kind of visual preparation for the acceleration of flight.
Pedersen says that, unlike other airports, neither passengers nor visitors will be routed around skimpy passageways so that they miss the main experience of this interior.
"All the areas are linked together by common use. In no other airport that I can think of can you walk out over the taxiway, and in no other airport can you greet a relative without having a ticket. The ticketing lobby is used both for ticketing and arrival. People aren't sent scurrying off to the basement to get their bags but are led through the regal space of the main hall.
"An airport is a symbol of city," Pedersen continues. "It is expressive of one's first contact, not unlike the railroad station of the past when one entered a city in grandeur. Entering in a noble way can be one of the memorable experiences of visiting a place.
"Everyone is concerned that the airport be a gateway to Buffalo. It is hard to put a true value on it at this point, but I think that the chances are that the terminal will come to have great symbolic meaning to the city."