An Airy Concourse of Glass and Steel

OUR plane was one of the last allowed into Chicago one stormy evening when lightning closed down O'Hare Airport for the night. But it was on this occasion that I discovered the unexpected privilege of spending the night in a work of art. This well-advertised ``flagship'' terminal of United Airlines is more than an ordinary structure. I had been expectant, prepared by a colorful article that enumerated the technological wonders: people-movers, automatic ticket-takers, computerized baggage sorters. I had pictured arched-trellis-like walkways. This work of the dramatic German-American architect, Helmut Jahn, would be worth the stopover on a transcontinental flight.

Grateful to be on the ground, but bedraggled, weary, dragging a carry-on dress bag, I looked for the beauty I had seen in photographs. Where was the transparent structure, the lean steel frames bent into romantically nostalgic forms, reminiscent of the glass conservatories for flowers or perhaps the rectilinear lines of the great French glass railroad sheds, immortalized by Monet?

I had not foreseen the difference that a nighttime visit would make, or how changed a glass building can be without the warmth of daylight. That daylight was what Jahn imagined, I later saw in his sketches, where he placed small spoked suns above the glass panels in preliminary drawings. In magazine photographs, blue sky animated the white framing steel shafts by marking out the rhythm of frames, the frosted fretted glass, and the clear glass.

I should have remembered. An early hero of mine, the California architect Bernard Maybeck, a prophet of early modernism, had seen and solved the problem in 1910. Boldly using inexpensive industrial materials, he had ringed the low perimeter of a building in factory-sash filled with glass. Sunshine brought the colors of the surrounding flower garden - of wisteria, geraniums, hydrangeas - inside in the daytime. But Maybeck also provided a colored and textured wood ceiling - a modest background in the day - to transfer attention from the glass periphery to the lighted ceiling at night.

Jahn, too, had anticipated the problem, I later learned. He had ordered the glass panels between the white perforated steel frames to be etched, so as to soften the look of the black glass for the traveler at night. Furthermore, along the walls flanking the underground people-mover between the terminal and its free-standing satellite 185 feet away, Jahn had designed a colored-light and sound ``experience.''

But what was his work of art saying to me when I met it face to face for the first time, as I strode down the concourse? I must admit, I was lost. The exposed structure looked cold, forbidding, more like the inside of a compressed airplane hangar than the light airy webs I had expected. The slick neon lights and cold gray steel of the fast-food rooms were uninviting. Children jumped up and down in front of the sinks in the restrooms to tell the electric eye that turned on the faucets of their presence. Technology and science was here, but where was the expression of the art of architecture?

Out in the concourse again, I began to see what Jahn was doing. The arched ``galleria'' did hark back to the adventuresome first experiments in iron and glass architecture in the 19th century. The wide, white webbed frames of perforated steel, Jahn's trademark framing device, had been recast this time on a relatively small scale to make an almost private sense of space that ballooned upward. This gives a ``lift'' to the traveler, who emerges from one of the lowest adjacent spaces, and looks forward to the marvels of air flight.

Ironically, Jahn had used many of the same concepts and forms in his design for the Chicago Greyhound Terminal. The catalog to the 1982 Yale Architectural School exhibition of his projects speaks of that earthbound terminal in terms that would apply later to O'Hare as well. The architect had worked to establish ``a `conservatory' mood which is inviting and people-pleasing, relating to the excitement and fantasy of travel as we remember it from the past.'' Jahn's sketches for the Greyhound terminal include small images of famous 19th- and early-20th-century monuments according to his own labels: ``Crystal Palace,'' ``Les Halles,'' ``Penn Station.''

That stormy night Jahn's arched concourse did give me a lift. The varied shapes of the galleria as it widened or narrowed for various functions gave a diversity to the space. The hidden light sources illuminated the rhythmic roofs. The ennui one associates with endless waiting at an airport never occurred.

And, as I snuggled up under my dress bag in one of the small ``holding rooms'' just off the concourse, I made peace with the building. I could enjoy Jahn's care in detailing the ceiling, where the rain sparkled in the indirect light. The imagery of the concourse made me reflect on how our ways have changed - people, not trains or flowers, fill the galleria spaces. This was not a gateway to a city, like the old railroad stations: We hardly knew we were there. Outside, trucks act like freight trains on the highways, planes zip from city to city like trains.

Although I had only dozed, as I flew out at dawn I glimpsed the ``new'' daytime structure and realized that Jahn's artistic insights, expressed in the United Terminal, had been revitalizing. I was refreshed, exhilarated by a new vision of history, ready to go back to the library, back to my 16th-century architectural books.

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