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The new parking ramp at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport may look like just another parking ramp. But the massive, 11-story ramp is no ordinary structure — in look or in function. In fact, it represents a new approach to seamless travel.

In addition to providing parking spaces for cars (5,000 of them), the Silver Ramp/Transit Center is a hub for taxis, trains, buses, shuttles and bicycles, too.

Whether you arrive at the airport via cab, rental car, light rail or your bike, this central transit node connects directly to Terminal 1. Much like a Grand Central Station of yore, it's connected to an underground people mover and then to the main terminal.

Opened in phases between August 2020 and June 2021, it's also a noteworthy work of architecture.

The main lobby is a spacious, column-free space clad in white-oak paneling and stone fasciae. It's also brightly lit with natural light from a transparent ceiling.

Tightly fitted with carefully proportioned panel joints that are framed by exposed concrete structure, the space features a dramatic quartet of unusually long escalators, set cheek-by-jowl against each other, all of which rise to different levels of the parking garage.

Leading into this main entry area, exposed concrete support beams overhead connecting the Silver and Blue ramps are purposefully aligned with the main flow of pedestrian traffic, almost like nature's striations in rocky canyons that express the flow and direction of water. These angled beams help direct people in subliminal, yet very effective ways toward their ticket and gate destinations.

Throughout the structure, materials work aesthetically and practically together.

The building is clad with long, thin terra-cotta fins that create a striking scrim. The fins come in four subtle colors (black, light blue, gray and white) and are vertically arranged. The woven-look texture they create helps visually break down the massiveness of the ramp.

During most of the day, the fins create shifting wave patterns that change with the sun, almost like a daytime equivalent of the aurora borealis.

Let there be art

Parking ramps, by necessity, must be smooth and durable. And, often, they have a harsh look. But Miller-Dunwiddie project architect Phillip Koski's introduction of natural light and natural materials (real wood and stone) gives the structure a softer, more natural feel.

Miller-Dunwiddie and the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) also included five public art installations in and near the building. Sometimes, the art became part of the architecture.

For example, parking structure fire codes require some outside airflow. Instead of just installing perforated metal wall screens, Miller-Dunwiddie and the MAC commissioned portraits of Minnesotans from a range of backgrounds to be etched into the wall screens.

And instead of laying down the usual drab commercial carpet, the floors are composed of terrazzo flooring with textures and blended tones. Not only are the floors attractive, they are less expensive to install and maintain.

At every opportunity Koski used transparent or translucent walls (which were designed for easy cleaning) to break down the typical enclosed feeling of most airport connecting passages.

One especially pleasing touch: the door frames of the elevators on the first and second levels that light up when a lift arrives. It's a small detail, but one that offers a little boost of light and color.

The Silver Ramp/Transit Center project — which included the MAC, Miller-Dunwiddie, Kimley-Horn, Michaud Cooley Erickson, CNA Engineers and Kraus-Anderson — is an attractive way to anticipate a future of smoothly integrated transit. Could it become a model for airports across the country?

Bruce N. Wright is a Minneapolis-based architect, author and educator specializing in architecture and construction technology.