Airport-as-Art Gets Rave Reviews From the Beltway Crowd

Jeffersonian domes and mall-like retail stores bring residents in to gawk

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Washington's newly refurbished National Airport is just one big happy place.

So happy that even ticketless residents are cramming its concourses, fawning over its million square feet of marble-floored cafes, high-end retail shops, and superefficient airline counters and gates.

The love affair kindled this week between a city and its reborn trophy is a sign of the times. More than ever, airports across the country have become statements of a region's wealth, comfort, and efficiency, but also of its culture.

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As the volume of air travel skyrockets, the value of a signature airport design can be seen in places like Denver's faux mountain-peaked roof and Chicago's bold new O'Hare terminal.

"Travel is so much a part of American life," says Richard Guy Wilson, an Architectural Historian at the University of Virginia. "Airports are where you capture the traveler-consumer for a portion of time, and that has been recognized," he says.

While captured at National, travelers can shop in a mall-like setting of 38 retail outlets including a National Geographic store. Designers even tailored restaurant placement to the demographic profile of various airlines' customers. The Great Steak and Potato Restaurant, for example, will be located in US Airways' gate area. Delta passengers like lighter fare. There's a yogurt and fruit stand near Delta's gates.

Still, there's some dispute over whether National's design now fits in a city accustomed to gray-stone facades. Its glass and steel stretch for more than a quarter mile, supporting 54 Jeffersonian domes. Sunlight pours through five-story high windows onto yellow-and-blue beams.

While many love its eclectic cavernous feel, they don't quite know how to describe it in proper terms. Even the experts have trouble. "It's modern, with historical references and elements of Post-Modernism," explains Wilson slowly as though diagramming a complicated sentence out loud.

"I don't feel like I'm at National Airport," says frequent flier Laverne Johnson looking out at Washington's monuments across the Potomac River. "I feel like I've already gone out of town."

Even the service workers who operate the terminal seem unnaturally happy. "I did 21 years at that other terminal," says W. Haight, an American Airlines Skycap, comparing the last two decades of his life to time in jail.

Pointing to the wide sidewalks for passenger unloading, Mr. Haight beams as though he designed them himself. "With this elbow room you can give a lot better service," he claims. "It's hard to make someone happy tripping all over baby sister, the bags, and someone's kids. That don't happen here!"

That satisfaction is the dream come true of architect Cesar Pelli who designed the $450 million terminal.

Despite the euphoria, some people are less than enamored. "They built a silk purse terminal out of a sow's ear airport," says David Stemplar, president of AirTrav Advisors. He argues Washington's airport should be miles from town, moving the loud noise away from some of the city's most affluent neighborhoods. (Even presidents conducting outdoor ceremonies are often forced to pause to allow planes to get beyond earshot.) There's also the danger of the runway approach, which is near sensitive buildings, including the Pentagon.

Ironically, in an age where air travel has become numbingly routine, some say this airport has recaptured some of the excitement that was here in 1941, when the original terminal opened and people came out to eat a cheeseburger and watch planes take off and land.

"We really didn't anticipate that people not getting on airplanes would be coming over on their lunch hour," says Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman.

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