CHICAGO—Following up on the Airport Review published on our 25th Anniversary Special Issue, on March 27, 2019, the City of Chicago has announced the winner of the competition to design the new O’Hare Global Terminal and Global Concourse.

This will see the centerpiece of an $8.5-billion plan to expand and modernize O’Hare International Airport, which reclaimed its position as the nation’s busiest in 2018 with 903,747 total flights.

The winner is Studio ORD Joint Venture Partners, led by local architect Jeanne Gang. She’s probably best known here for her design of the curvaceous Aqua Tower downtown and Writers Theatre in Glencoe.

While Gang doesn’t have aviation experience, the other team members do. They include Corgan, Milhouse Engineering & Construction, STL Architects and Solomon Cordwell Buenz.

Studio ORD beat out four other firms that submitted proposals for the 2.2 million-square-foot terminal, which will replace the old Terminal 2 and is double the size.

Culled by the Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) from the twelve that responded to a request for qualifications last June, they are  Fentress-EXP-Brook-Garza Joint Venture Partners, Foster Epstein Moreno Joint Venture Partners, Santiago Calatrava LLC, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM).

Studio ORD’s design has a trio of curving facades and looks like a “Y,” suggesting the confluence of the north and south branches of the Chicago River and the city’s Y-shaped emblem.

A six-pointed skylight topping a tree-lined atrium conjures the six-pointed stars of the Chicago flag. Unlike the other submissions, it incorporates lots of natural wood, including ceiling beams and wood-clad escalators. Like all of them, it features soaring roofs and loads of natural light.

In a statement announcing the winning project, which is estimated at $2.2-billion and will be paid for by airport revenues, not taxpayer dollars, the city pointed out that the terminal will be one of the largest and most cutting-edge in the country with a light-filled arrivals hall offering “additional gates; more space for concessions, lounges and public amenities; state of the art new baggage systems; and advanced new technologies to improve security screening.”

Scheduled to break ground in 2023 and be completed by 2028, the Global Terminal also will integrate international and domestic operations for the first time at O’Hare, allowing passengers to connect more easily from international flights to domestic ones under the same roof. The additional gate capacity will facilitate the growth of hub partners, United and American Airlines, and their alliance affiliates.

While the city’s statement lauded the project’s creation of “tens of thousands of jobs” and included  accolades from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CDA Commissioner Jamie L. Rhee, United CEO Oscar Munoz and  American Airlines Chairman and CEO Doug Parker, the selection of Studio ORD—and the selection process—have not been without controversy.

The members of the Evaluation Committee “of stakeholders and subject matter experts” were kept secret and still have not been disclosed even though Chief Procurement Officer Shannon E. Andrews  insists “the city has selected the top scoring team….after an extensive procurement process.”

Several critics have lamented the lack of transparency, among them Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blain Kamin. “It’s unfortunate that city is not revealing names on the committee that chose Gang or reasons they chose her,” he said in a telephone interview. “Gang has worked closely with Mayor Rahm Emanuel on several key projects, which raises the question of whether she got this project fair and square or the ‘Chicago way.’ ”

Kamin also thinks the Studio ORD design is far from the best. Although it would give O’Hare the “sculptural form” that helped make Gang’s reputation, it has serious flaws, particularly “a multilevel departure sequence that could add confusion to an airport already known for it.”

“The design relies heavily on escalators to bring people from a curbside entrance level to a raised check in and security level,” he pointed out,  “but escalators often break down or become bottlenecks, and people carrying luggage sometimes fall and injure themselves. It’s inconceivable that a multilevel airport could function without escalators, but escalators and airports are often a dangerous mix.”

Kamin found the design by Foster Epstein Moreno Joint Venture Partners the most compelling, and  many people thought Santiago Calatrava’s bold plan would get the nod, despite concerns about his ability to complete the work on time and on budget.

Interestingly, Studio ORD’s design also did not take top honors in a first-ever public poll, the results of which were released at the same time as the city announced its winner.

When asked, “Which design provides the best passenger experience at O’Hare, including amenities, accessibility, and aesthetics?” 30 percent of the 41,200 survey respondents voted for Calatrava, followed by 27 percent for Foster. Studio ORD came in third at 21 percent.

The results were similar for the question: Which design best fits with the existing O’Hare design and architecture? Calatrava got 28 percent of the vote, Foster got 25 percent, and Studio ORD was third with 19 percent.

Winning the design competition is just a starting point for Studio ORD, of course. It now will enter into contract negotiations with the city, which also will work with the FAA to review the plans and get the necessary environmental approvals. Also, a second team has yet to be chosen from the remaining four to design the two new Satellite Concourses to be built west of Terminal 1.

Word has it that Mayor Emanuel hopes to have the contract with Studio ORD signed, sealed and delivered before he leaves office in May. But who knows? Now that Lori Lightfoot has been elected Chicago’s first female African American mayor, it may be a whole new ball game.