Seeking to alleviate congestion and boost the passenger experience at MSP International Airport’s Terminal 1, the Metropolitan Airports Commission turns to architecture firms Alliiance and Miller Dunwiddie

By Joel Hoekstra

Every day, roughly 70,000 people pass through Terminal 1–Lindbergh at Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport. That figure would astound the designers of the original terminal building, opened in 1962. At that time, the facility was expected to accommodate 4.1 million passengers annually. In 2016, more than 35 million travelers passed through Terminal 1. By 2030, the total number of passengers at Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 is expected to surpass 54 million.

Passenger volume isn’t the only change the airport has experienced over the past six decades. Security screenings were introduced in the 1980s and enhanced significantly after the events of 9/11. Upscale shops and eateries—many with a local flavor—were added in the 1990s, with help from Minneapolis architecture firm Alliiance. Today, factors such as plane size are reshaping operations: Airlines have swapped smaller planes for larger aircraft and reduced the number of flights. The net result is a concentration of passengers at peak travel times.

“We currently have five major peaks in traffic each day,” says Alan Howell, AIA, senior airport architect with the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), which operates the facility. “Those peaks will continue to get bigger as demand for air service increases.”

The challenge for the MAC and its design partners is to accommodate the growing passenger volume efficiently and economically while enhancing the overall traveler experience.

After the decision was made in 1996 to keep the airport in its current location rather than build from scratch on a different site, the MAC set a course for optimizing its existing real estate. The first big buildout—between 1998 and 2005—included an extension of Terminal 1’s Concourse C, a brand-new Terminal 2, and a fourth runway. After economic downturns in the 2000s, passenger numbers began to grow again, prompting the MAC to begin planning for the next 20 years.

Airport visitors will witness numerous changes in and around the airport over the next several years, including consolidated checkpoints, the expansion of Terminal 1’s ticketing and baggage-claim spaces, a new parking facility, and more public art.

These efforts to expand terminal capacity and elevate comfort and aesthetics throughout the facility are being guided by Alliiance and Miller Dunwiddie. Both firms have a long history at MSP. “Our firm has done business at MSP for more than 50 years—every kind of project imaginable,” notes Miller Dunwiddie principal Monica Hartberg, AIA. “There’s a whole city out there that supports the passenger experience.”

The easiest way to increase the capacity of a building is, of course, to add more space. The next-best approach is to maximize existing square footage. The MAC’s approach, mapped out by Alliiance, does a little of both, says Alliiance principal Eric Peterson, AIA.

Over the next few years, Terminal 1’s crenellated facade will be flattened and pushed out 15 feet. Passenger check-in space will be consolidated and made more flexible, reducing the number of unused check-in counters throughout the day as traffic ebbs and flows. Restrooms and elevators will be centered in the building’s core rather than scattered throughout the building. The changes will yield a 10 percent increase in public space on the ticketing and baggage-claim levels. “With modest expansion and smart design, we’ll sizably increase the building’s lobby space,” notes Peterson.

In many ways, the improvements planned for Terminal 1 reflect lessons learned from Terminal 2, designed by Miller Dunwiddie and completed in 2001. The open areas at Terminal 2 are adaptable: Spaces can be easily modified to handle new technologies, enhanced security protocols, and unforeseen operational changes. When automated baggage check becomes the norm, Howell notes, space will be required in Terminal 1 to house the kiosks. If check-in services or other operations require less room or are automated in the future, the necessary changes will be easier to make—thanks to a more open, flexible design.

Capacity is also an issue for MSP’s parking facilities. Parking at Terminal 1 is currently limited to 12,000 spaces. During busy times, drivers can be diverted to ramps at Terminal 2, which can delay their arrival by a half hour or more. The new Silver Ramp, designed by Miller Dunwiddie, will provide an additional 5,000 parking spaces when it opens in 2020. Clad in an aesthetically pleasing screen of glazed terra-cotta tubes, the structure will also house the new Terminal 1 rental-car facility.

During peak travel times, the key to maintaining order is keeping people moving. Long lines, crowded escalators, confusing signage—all these have the potential to frustrate travelers. Many of the changes being introduced at MSP are aimed at enhancing the flow of car and pedestrian traffic.

Motorists arriving at and departing from Terminal 1 will be routed along a reconfigured roadway. Curbside baggage-check services will be available on the parking-ramp side of the departures (ticketing) level. (Currently, skycaps and baggage check are on the traffic-congested terminal side.) Inside the terminal, on all four levels, travelers will have quick and easy access to ticketing and security via six large elevators at the center of the building. Escalators, widely used in the original design, will become secondary options.

Signage will guide visitors, of course, but wayfinding will be enhanced by other visual cues: Displays updated in real time will show estimated waits at each of the security checkpoints; green lights projected onto the floor outside arriving elevators will guide passengers to their destination. “Where possible, we specified flow-through-style elevators to allow travelers to enter one side and exit the other, providing increased equity in access for those with limited mobility,” notes Alliiance principal Jeff Loeschen, AIA.

Some of the changes are already evident. In recent years, MAC officials, working in conjunction with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), have reduced the number of security checkpoints. Howell says the TSA likes the efficiencies that come with having a supervisor manage a single checkpoint with multiple lanes rather than having multiple managers at multiple checkpoints.

Claiming baggage will also become easier. Today at MSP, carousel orientation forces crowds of travelers to cluster, bob, and weave around the carousels as they hunt for their suitcases and parcels. A 50-percent increase in the linear feet of the carousels will reduce congestion.

Another notable improvement is already complete: Parkers now pass through an 18-lane exit plaza with a gleaming canopy that resembles an airplane wing, all designed by Miller Dunwiddie. “The architecture of the new canopy and support buildings is mostly just an extension of the existing terminal—metal panels, dark masonry, and large areas of glass,” explains project designer Phillip Koski, AIA. “But the bigger goal was to remove distractions and make the wayfinding experience as intuitive and natural as possible.”

In an ideal world, none of these changes would be remarkable. Lack of congestion? Easy flow? Travelers tend not to notice such things until they get stopped in their tracks.

But aesthetics is another matter, and MSP aims to impress. The patterns in Terminal 1’s new terrazzo floors will evoke the cool blue waters of the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Alliiance’s ongoing work to redesign the airport’s restrooms with nature-themed mosaic tilework has made headlines around the country (see “America’s Best Bathroom” below). “In general, the overall feeling is meant to be lighter, brighter, and more open,” says Peterson.

Physical comfort will also be prioritized: Alliiance’s plans add a variety of seating areas with rugs, floor lamps, and coffee tables, where travelers can relax before or between their flights. “It’ll be a more hospitality-driven experience,” says Peterson.

Attention to aesthetics continues outside the terminal. As noted earlier, Miller Dunwiddie wrapped the exterior of the new parking ramp in a screen of terra-cotta baguettes glazed in white, black, gray, and sky blue. (A metal exterior would interfere with MSP’s radar systems.) The pattern will create a stirring visual effect from every distance and perspective. Inside, finishes will include dark-gray burnished block, porcelain tile, rift-sawn white-oak panels, and exposed architectural concrete.

“Airport architects are lucky in that we only really consider high-quality materials that can stand up to crowds of people 24 hours a day,” says Koski. “The challenge is to use the materials to shape spaces people want to spend time in, not just walk through.”

All these changes are scheduled to be completed between 2020 and 2023. But even as the finishing touches are being made, new renovations will be starting elsewhere, and plans will evolve in accordance with new forecasts for changes in traffic and operations at MSP. MAC’s Howell says he’s confident that the current construction will position MSP for the next decade or two. Beyond that, he admits, the airport’s design needs are anyone’s guess.

“I don’t know what kind of aircraft we’ll be flying in 2050,” he says. “Will MSP be the Minnesota Space Port? Nobody knows.”


Operational Improvements
Client: Metropolitan Airports Commission
Architect: Alliiance
Construction coordinator: Kraus Anderson
Size: Approximately 470,000 square feet
Cost: Approximately $300 million
Completion: 2015–23

Parking Expansion
Client: Metropolitan Airports Commission
Program manager: Kimley-Horn
Architect: Miller Dunwiddie
Energy modeling: The Weidt Group; Michaud Cooley Erickson
Construction coordinator: Kraus Anderson
Size: Approximately 2.5 million square feet (excluding site work and replacement structures)
Cost: $443 million
Completion: Spring 2020


Terrazzo floors. Quartz countertops. Artist-designed tile mosaics. Natural light. Travelers passing through MSP don’t need access to a luxury airline club to enjoy such amenities. These lavish design elements come standard with the airport’s new restroom prototype. Several renovated facilities—all with more space—are already open, complete with niches in stalls for stowing laptops, hooks near sinks for hanging purses, and hand dryers that hum rather than blast noise. The restrooms also feature baby-changing stations and automatic doors.

The result? A more spacious, easy, and restful experience. Airport managers elsewhere are taking notice—especially after the MSP facilities were voted “America’s Best Bathroom” in 2016 in an online poll conducted by Cintas, a major restroom-products supplier.