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Airport-as-Art Gets Rave Reviews From the Beltway Crowd

Jeffersonian domes and mall-like retail stores bring residents in to gawk

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Washington's newly refurbished National Airport is just one big happy place.

So happy that even ticketless residents are cramming its concourses, fawning over its million square feet of marble-floored cafes, high-end retail shops, and superefficient airline counters and gates.

The love affair kindled this week between a city and its reborn trophy is a sign of the times. More than ever, airports across the country have become statements of a region's wealth, comfort, and efficiency, but also of its culture.

As the volume of air travel skyrockets, the value of a signature airport design can be seen in places like Denver's faux mountain-peaked roof and Chicago's bold new O'Hare terminal.

"Travel is so much a part of American life," says Richard Guy Wilson, an Architectural Historian at the University of Virginia. "Airports are where you capture the traveler-consumer for a portion of time, and that has been recognized," he says.

While captured at National, travelers can shop in a mall-like setting of 38 retail outlets including a National Geographic store. Designers even tailored restaurant placement to the demographic profile of various airlines' customers. The Great Steak and Potato Restaurant, for example, will be located in US Airways' gate area. Delta passengers like lighter fare. There's a yogurt and fruit stand near Delta's gates.

Still, there's some dispute over whether National's design now fits in a city accustomed to gray-stone facades. Its glass and steel stretch for more than a quarter mile, supporting 54 Jeffersonian domes. Sunlight pours through five-story high windows onto yellow-and-blue beams.

While many love its eclectic cavernous feel, they don't quite know how to describe it in proper terms. Even the experts have trouble. "It's modern, with historical references and elements of Post-Modernism," explains Wilson slowly as though diagramming a complicated sentence out loud.


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