National Airport: A New Terminal Takes Flight


Photo Gallery
Art found in the
new terminal.

Frank Stella

Al Held

Michele Doner

Joyce Kozloff

Artwork Reflects Nation's Vibrancy and Diversity

By Ferdinand Protzman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 16, 1997

Combining art and architecture is certainly not a recent idea, so the genius of what Cesar Pelli and his team of builders, artists and artisans have done with National Airport's new terminal lies in execution, not invention.

Visitors can see art at every turn, and the works make a significant contribution by making spaces that are usually dead -- balustrades, walls over escalators -- come to life.

For a vast structure whose main purpose is mass transportation, the new terminal has a surprisingly warm and accessible feel. The artists whose work is part and parcel of the new structure drew from the world around them, producing a rich potpourri of contemporary art. Taken as a whole, the art in the airport reflects some of the most laudable aspects of American culture -- its vibrancy, diversity and inclusiveness.

Selecting works with broad appeal was a high priority when Pelli, Leo A. Daley (the architect of record) and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority set about choosing the $5.5 million worth of art to be incorporated into the terminal. In cooperation with museum officials, private curators and art dealers from across the country, they put together an initial pool of 300 artists, which eventually was winnowed to the final 30.

In an interview with design writer John Pastier, Pelli explained the thinking that went into the selection process. "We wanted the art to be, roughly speaking, a cross section of the art world today, ranging from very well-known artists at one end to some less well-known ones, with quite a few in between," Pelli said.

"We have artists late in their careers, in the middle of their careers and early in their careers. We wanted representational artists, figurative artists and abstract artists. I'm very open-minded, so I feel I could collaborate with almost anybody who does good work.

"We did have one set of preconceptions, however. We felt it was important to have a good share of Washington area artists, and to have a larger representation of minority and women artists than you would find in a typical cross section of artists being exhibited today."

Pelli and his associates selected several internationally known artists, such as Jennifer Bartlett, Nancy Graves, Frank Stella, Joyce Kozloff, Jacob Kainen, Al Held, Sam Gilliam and Sol Lewitt. Besides Kainen and Gilliam, the Washington area artists include Lisa Scheer, Edith Kuhnle, Eglon Daley, W.C. Richardson and Wayne Edson Bryan.

The quality of the art is generally high, particularly the abstract works. Among the most eye-catching pieces are Al Held's colorful, stained-glass frieze, which runs across the northernmost half of the huge glass wall facing the runway, the Potomac River and Washington's monuments, and Sol Lewitt's black-and-white marble medallion, which is embedded in the floor of the concourse level.

Because this is an airport and not a museum or private space, certain limits were placed on the artists' creativity. The issues of gender, race, sexuality and social critique that drive much contemporary art were carefully avoided here. In addition, Pelli's firm held meetings with the artists, showing them where in the terminal their artwork would be located and the yellow and other colors that would be used in the building's design.

"This is a public space where thousands of men, women and children are going to see your work every day," says Wayne Edson Bryan, an Alexandria-based painter who created three balustrade panels for the project. "I knew right off I wasn't going to include any overtly controversial imagery. Working with limits is not unusual when you are doing a commission. As an artist, this was something I was really excited about doing, and I'm really pleased with the way it turned out."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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