• An undulating metal roof recalls the span of an aircraft’s wings. - photos by Kurt Griesbach

To accommodate an influx of travelers, the new terminal at the Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport embraces the same high-tech approach to design that is fueling the region’s growth.

Client City of Brownsville Department of Aviation
Architect Corgan
Contractor SpawGlass
Construction Management Oncall Aviation Engineer Garver Engineering
Structural/MEPF/Civil Airside Jacobs
Low Voltage/Security Moye Consulting
Civil Landside Ambiotec Engineering
Landscape Architect SSP Design
Baggage Handling System Design Vic Thompson Company
Envelope Consulting Wiss Janney Elstner Associates

When Elon Musk announced in 2014 that SpaceX would be constructing a launch facility at Boca Chica Beach, on the southern tip of Texas, Brownsville knew big changes were coming. With a parade that showcased the latest model Teslas along with traditional Mexican American music and cuisine, the city welcomed the private space flight company with open arms, anticipating great things to come. 

As SpaceX began to grow its operations, visitors, business travelers, and new residents began to flow into the Rio Grande Valley. Just 15 miles from the growing SpaceX facility, the Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport (known by its airport code, BRO) was conveniently located, but its existing facilities were strained by the sudden increase in traffic. The original terminal was rich in history. It had been designated as headquarters of Pan American’s Western Division in the 1930s, had participated in the first International Airmail service, and was a pioneer training center for pilots learning to fly with instrument-only navigation. Despite this legacy, the existing terminal felt more like an outdated bus station for aircraft and failed to meet current Transportation Safety Administration requirements. 

Those who have previously passed through the airport are in for a treat when they experience this new gateway to the Valley. The $79 million state-of-the-art passenger terminal, with its four gates and Federal Inspection Services facility, opened in January 2021, approximately five years after its initial schematic design and proposal. The project had two goals: replace the outdated existing terminal that was unable to meet current and future demand, and increase passenger capacity while also improving the passenger experience. These factors were crucial in its design, as seen in the attention given to the lounges, baggage claim, and ticketing areas. 

The 91,000-sf facility blends new technologies and materials with traditional vernacular elements. On the exterior, monumental concrete columns elevate an undulating metal roof that recalls the span of aircraft wings. Behind the walkway, the building’s facade consists of an interlaced earth-tone brick pattern that complements the terminal’s cutting-edge glazing system. 

Francisco Partida, a special projects manager for the Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport, spoke about this unique approach to glazing. “One of the main features the terminal has is auto-tint glass,” he said. “It is connected to an astronomical calendar and some of the computer programs that have all of the weather information.”

This high-tech material allows the building to remain generally transparent while also responding to the specifics of the sun. This way, the terminal can save energy while maintaining comfortable temperature levels, without the use of blinds or other physical shading elements. Although the new terminal is smaller than those of many other airports in Texas, the large amount of glazing allows for the space to feel larger than it is.

The terminal’s interior has a clean, modern aesthetic while at the same time incorporating elements that echo the Mexican heritage of the region. The murals, for example, feature maps and other colorful depictions of the growing region. As visitors move through the main, double-height lobby and ticketing center, the undulating ceiling perpetuates the kinetic experience established by the exterior metal roof forms. The waiting area features integrated wireless charging stations for travelers — another modern touch.

Since the recent change that Brownsville has experienced is likely to continue, the terminal’s plan is modular to accommodate future expansion. Assistant City Manager and Aviation Administrator Bryant Walker noted: “Transformation is coming to the city of Brownsville. This new terminal provides the city and management team with the infrastructure to support that change.” Brownsville has been pursuing new airlines and new routes and, thanks to the new terminal, the airport will be able to accommodate that growth. “This is the real deal,” Walker said. “It’s one impressive terminal.”

The new building has been in use for less than a year, and even though air traffic was reduced because of the pandemic, it is already showing signs of the sort of wear and tear associated with a heavily used public facility. Time will tell if maintenance will be able to keep the terminal looking like a state-of-the-art airport serving a nearby state-of-the-art spaceport. 

Mario Serna is a Ph.D. student and lecturer in the Architectural and Engineering Design Technology department at South Texas College.

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