National Airport: A New Terminal Takes Flight


Inside view of the new National Airport terminal.
Inside view of the new National Airport terminal.
(Above Left) Cesar Pelli

Photos by Margaret Thomas/TWP (Pelli) and Robert Reeder/TWP
Architect Wants An Airport Where People
Cesar Pelli
Feel at Ease

The Washington Post
July 16, 1997

Cesar Pelli is the architect of the new terminal building at National Airport. Pelli, 70, a former dean of the Yale University School of Architecture, works out of his design studio in New Haven, Conn. He received the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects in 1995. His Washington area buildings include the Comsat Laboratories in Montgomery County and a new office building at 1900 K St. NW. Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey talked with him recently about the thinking behind the new building at National Airport. Their conversation:

Q: You fly a lot in your line of work. What are your favorite airports?

A: I do fly a lot, and I enjoy certain aspects of certain airports, but there is no single great airport. There are many fairly expensive new airports being built around the world, such as in Kuala Lumpur [Malaysia] and Hong Kong, so I imagine in the next four or five years, we may have some great airports.

Q: How do you define a great airport?

A: I like airport terminals that have lots of natural light, that are spacious, that make you feel comfortable, where being there is a pleasant thing. It is also important that directions be easy to follow. Unfortunately, most airports have been designed primarily for the convenience of the airlines. People are just an inconvenience.

Yet airports are places where people do spend time, where they need to go through a series of complex transactions. Many are rather stressful. There is all the time-consuming activity of getting your ticket, checking your baggage or picking it up, waiting at the gate for your plane or for your family or friends to arrive. Sometimes the gates for flights are changed. Sometimes the waits are very long. And everybody who uses an airport today is looked at for a few minutes at least as a potential criminal. So, all of this adds considerable stress to the process of getting from the Metro or your taxicab or the parking lot to the inside of an airplane.

Q: Should the public spaces in airports be designed to relieve this stress?

A: The public spaces should be such that they don't contribute to the stress. They should make the experience of being in the airport as pleasant and as uplifting as one can make it. I love that word, "uplifting," for an airport. [Laughs.]

Q: How do you design for this quality?

A: For me, two issues are terribly important. One is orientation. Some airports disorient you. You walk down one way, see one sign that tells you to turn left, and another sign says turn right and right again. You don't know where you are. To have a clear idea of where you are is very important.

The second is a sense of light, to be able to see clouds and sky, or sometimes trees at a distance or, in the case of National Airport, you will be able to see the Potomac. And from many parts of the airport you will be able to see the Capitol dome. These are things that take your mind off your worries and transform your being there into a pleasant experience. And of course, seeing outside is one of the most orienting things of all. Because you see the airplanes, and you can see back to the terminal. It tells you where you are in relationship to other parts of the terminal.

Q: Obviously, you've thought a lot about these issues. Had you designed any airports prior to National?

A: No, not really. I had worked with Eero Saarinen in the late '50s on the TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport, but that was a long time ago. And air travel, of course, has changed drastically. That was a very particular kind of terminal. When we started designing it, jets were still not in operation. Nobody had yet invented the landing bridges -- those telescoping tubes that connect the waiting areas directly to the airplane -- and they have changed the ways we experience an airport.

Q: How so?

A: Landing bridges create a non-architectural relationship between you and the building because you go directly from airplane to terminal interior. You do not experience entering the building because you are connected directly by these umbilical tubes. You never see a facade. You don't open a door. And something like
Inside view of the new National Airport Terminal.
An aerial view of the new terminal
Photo by Robert Reeder/TWP
that is starting to happen with the front facades of airports, too.

Certainly this is true of National, where a very large percentage of people -- perhaps over half -- will enter the airport through tubes, through connections starting from the garage or from Metro. You will not go from the exterior to the interior. You will go directly from, say, the Farragut North Metro station to the seat in your airplane without having gone from inside to outside. A single gentle walk.

This is a very new experience. It is a very contemporary way of moving. Some people think that it is a great loss not to go out. I know that when it's raining and cold, nobody misses the opportunity of getting wet or shivering.

Q: What you're saying is that airports are becoming more a means of connecting different modes of transportation, rather than conventional architectural objects.

A: Yes, particularly National, because it's connected directly to Metro.

Q: Tell me what the special conditions were of designing National Airport.

A: First of all, it's not a new airport. Itís a new terminal in an existing airport. And because it is so close to the center of the city, there are many limits. No more flights could be added to National. The runways and taxiways could not be changed. The number of gates could not be increased. We are just replacing existing gates with new and better ones.

Q: Is it true that the location of Metro and the existing terminal and runways pretty much determined where you had to put this new building?

A: That is correct. A master plan had been done many years ago that placed the building in very much the same position we have it now. Our studies confirmed it as the only viable plan. But we made important changes in the cross section of the building, so that you can get straight from Metro or the garage to the concourse level, and to the planes. To do this, we had to build a roadway much higher than originally proposed. But this is going to make going to National Airport, whether by car or train, much more pleasant.

And we placed the ticketing counters differently. Conventionally, the airlines want you to face their counters and see their big signs as soon as you enter the building. But, just as was done at the original National building, we put the counters on the opposite wall, so that when you come in, on both the upper and lower levels, you have in front of you a great, uninterrupted window with a fantastic view.

Q: Tell us about the domes.

A: We were requested to develop three alternative designs, and we took the opportunity to explore three different architectural premises. One was the idea of a big, single roof -- the idea that has shaped many contemporary airports from Dulles International until now. Another was a building with a huge curved window facing the airfield, similar to the original National building but a lot longer. A third was to break the space into small, friendly, sky-lit modules, although this filled the space with columns.

I realized by then that I had learned a lot, and I proposed a fourth alternative, combining some of the best ideas I had in the others. I kept the large window, the two-tiered cross section and the idea of the modules, and I made the modules larger and covered them with domes. Well, the first modular scheme was not domed. It was more angular, and was quite wonderful but not practical. The domes are a very handsome way of organizing the modules, quite wonderful and also practical.

Q: You kept the modular idea, and yet the space doesn't seem all that filled with columns.

A: Yes, we enlarged the modules so there would be fewer columns, and we arranged it so the columns would come down at the edge of the upper level, right at the balcony, so they don't interfere with passenger traffic or views.

The module has an important psychological value in that each one is like a very large living room in size. It's a space that we experience in our daily life. It's the size of a classroom. It's the size of a room in a museum. We will not feel thrown into a huge warehouse-like space. It will reassure you even if you will not know why. The domes make spaces designed on the scale of people, not on the scale of big machines.

Q: The colors of the interior are unusually lighthearted. Did you select them all?

A: The colors are also important. I found that most airports, for some reason, are drab gray. This must have been decided at some architects convention that I did not go to. Again, this is a place where you need uplifting. The colors I combine are very traditional colors, pale yellows and whites primarily, with touches of blue. The blue is there not so much as a color, but to make the yellow feel sunnier and warmer. These colors make the space feel sunny even when it's pouring rain outside. Light and luminous and happy.

Q: The amount of art in the building also is unusual.

A: The art has a similar purpose. In actuality, it was called an "architectural enhancement program." For me, this meant the art had to become part of the architecture. We don't have any art that is just plopped beside the architecture or hanging on the architecture. For example, the two stained-glass windows are integral parts of the long wall of windows. The mosaic medallions are parts of the floor. They are works of art created by significant artists, but the images were handmade by very proficient artisans. We submitted the materials to tests for friction, durability and cleanability, so that the end product is very beautiful and also very serviceable.

The intention was to make the art contribute to making a building that is much, much richer. Now, if you come in and they tell you your plane is an hour late, at least you will be able to walk through the concourse and enjoy the art. Your children will enjoy it, too. Like the building, the art is done to please the most refined tastes, and yet it is basically a populist approach. This is architecture and art everybody should enjoy, including congressmen.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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