WHEN RUSHING TO CATCH YOUR PLANE AT NATIONAL AIRPORT, TAKE A MOMENT TO LOOK AROUND. YOU'LL BE SURPRISED AND DELIGHTED

SOMETIMES IT SEEMS THAT THE PEOPLE who design airports must be the same people who once designed train stations. Is it an accident that the long, low tunnel-like buildings created alongside steel tracks seem a lot like the long, low tunnel-like buildings created alongside asphalt runways?

It's practical, of course: People have to be spread out from airplane to airplane just as train passengers have to be spread out along a platform so they will enter different coaches. But such design is chillingly functional. Walking through an airport, through those cinder-block pipelines that passengers must use to get to their planes, a thought comes to mind: This could as easily be filled with oil as with people.

Passengers adopt a certain nearsightedness in airports, seeing only their immediate surroundings, thinking much less about where they are than where they soon will be: out of the tunnel and into a cab, or out of the tunnel and into a silvery tube that will fly them to another tunnel in another city.

National can seem as boring as any other airdrome: Look at it just after takeoff sometime and you'll see how the curvilinear grace of the original 1940 building has been stretched by growth into a very long, low tunnel-like building. But it is different from other airports. Its interior and exterior are adorned with hundreds of exquisite ornamental details -- metal carvings and mosaics and etched glass, beauty marks that ought to stop travelers in their tracks. This is an airport of considerable elegance, a national treasure of architectural components. This is an airport much like an old town house in Georgetown, its architectural details now too costly, now requiring too much craftsmanship, to be found in any modern building.

Instead of a modern airport, Washington has a fine old home worth pausing in. The next time you're passing through, take in the details. ::