National Airport: A New Terminal Takes Flight


Photo of new terminal's windows and artwork.
Visitors get a preview of some of the artwork at the new terminal.
Photo by Robert Reeder/TWP
From Picnics to Poetry,
Greenery to Glass, a Little Something for Everyone

By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 16, 1997

Look carefully at the food court's circular table tops, and the swirls resemble propellers. Wander down a hall outside the Delta Air Lines gates, and discover a meditation area. Peek around the corner outside the ticketing level, and find picnic areas -- on both ends.

National Airport's new terminal is chockablock with treats for those who have enough time before their flights to poke around, and to pacify those cooling their heels during delays.

With 2,052 Japanese holly bushes, 1,561 forsythia plants and 33 red oak trees, the million-square-foot terminal was designed not just for the feet but also for the eyes and nose.

"The first priority was convenience for the person who wants to get to their gate in a hurry," airport spokeswoman Tara Hamilton said. "But we wanted to take advantage of technology and incorporate art."

The attention to detail starts at the five-story parking decks, which are lined with vines that are expected to eventually outgrow their planters and form a green sheath for the garage's concrete sides.

Two air-conditioned bridges with moving walkways lead first to the Metrorail station and then to the terminal. The truly Type-A (or truly late) traveler doesn't have to wait to get inside to check flight departures: A bank of screens has been installed outside the Metro station's Farecard plaza.

Designers wanted travelers to immediately know where they were, so as soon as you walk in, you're facing the panoramic picture window overlooking the airfield. If you've ever wondered what 1.5 acres of glass looks like, here it is.

Midway up the window, lines of ceramic painting are baked into the solar-efficient glass wall. Dark horizontal stripes, which are closer together the higher they get, provide shade from the morning sun.

Smack in front of you are information carousels marked by 22-foot-high clocks -- old-fashioned ones with hands. Another old-fashioned touch: real live humans in the booths. "If you don't want to, you never have to read a sign," Hamilton said.

If you don't speak English, you can't read the signs, which are not bilingual. "We're not an international airport," Hamilton explained. Translation help is available at the information carousels and at the Travelers Aid booth, she said.

Few other details have been overlooked:

At the ticket counters upstairs, stainless-steel tables fold down to help travelers in wheelchairs sign papers and fill out luggage tags.

On the stairs between the ticketing and concourse levels, metal mesh between the steps lets you see the view below but keeps dropped items from falling through.

The architect, Cesar Pelli, even took an interest in the retail kiosks, designing them with see-through backs and few shelves, so merchandise doesn't block the view out of the big windows.

And this sounds handy for the den at home: The walls in the gate areas are made of rectangular panels of vinyl-coated fiberboard. The material resists most scuffs and can be popped out and replaced if bashed by a stroller or luggage cart.

For a taste of things to come at the end of the trip, arriving travelers pass balconies that overlook the baggage-claim carousels.

Two terraces, landscaped with shady wisteria, bracket the terminal. On the north end, 18 planters are equipped with metal seats and are topped by twisted aluminum sculptures that look like umbrella frames. On the south end, the 16 planters are topped by a huge, Erector-set-style canopy. In good weather, food and beverage carts will hawk goodies on the terraces.

Why would you want to picnic at an airport?

Leslie Pereira, of Parsons Management Consultants, which is overseeing contracts at the terminal, put it delicately. "There are any number of occasions when one might wind up in the airport for an extended period of time," she said. "If you travel, you know that."

The concourse walkway is decorated with 10 circular medallions, each 18 feet in diameter. Eight are made of Italian tile, one is marble and one is terrazzo with bronze inlays.

"All the art is built into the architecture," Hamilton said. "You walk on the tile; you look through the glass window to see the friezes."

On the ticketing level's south window, a tree-shaped aluminum sculpture is built on hinges to ease cleaning.

When the sun is overhead, it streams straight through the skylights in the domes 65 feet overhead. The 54 skylights, shaped like giant eyeballs, are surrounded by sky-blue trim and gold-colored steel arches.

Turn your back to the window wall, and you'll see brightly enameled porcelain tiles in the railing of the upper balcony.

In the middle of the ticketing level, the rail bows into a curve fitted with iron models that evoke the industrial age: barrels, bridges and biplanes.

Bronze lettering along the railing spells out a quotation from poet Walt Whitman, a part of which seems to describe the new terminal: "High rising tier on tier with glass and iron facades gladdening the sun . . . "

Just off the concourse is a meditation chapel, suggested by an interdenominational group. It's a no-nonsense room with benches and tables made of blond wood. (A nod to reality: Look up, and you'll see a security camera.)

Several airlines' gates offer a picture-window view of the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. The best gate view is from Gate 43, which juts so far onto the airfield you feel as if you can touch the landmarks.

At the gates, some telephones have ports for plugging in laptop computers. Other special facilities include "companion care" restrooms, which provide privacy for those who need help.

As you leave the terminal and walk out to the passenger pickup lane, glass shelters keep the rain off. And finally, there's this rare convenience: curbside telephones, in case someone needs to be reminded to pick you up from the airport.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

Go to Overview Story   |   Go to Washington World   |   Go to Home Page

Back to the top