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Happy Travels

A brighter, more elegant airport has finally arrived.

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Was there ever a time when the Richmond International Airport wasn't a work in progress? That's being charitable. Truth to tell, it could also be a confusing mess depending on the time of year, hour of day or how construction was progressing.

Approaching the depressingly lit passenger drop-off lane was a frightful experience: There were too few parking spaces and too many airport cops ready to scare people off. Folks from incoming flights wondered when luggage would make it to the creaky conveyer. Taxis, especially late at night, weren't promised. The place could feel like a Third World airport.

"Welcome to Richmond" or "Come back soon" could be taken as sly threat.

Well, all that has changed as a $46.8 million expansion nears completion. There is a striking and elegant new front facade that makes being dropped off a pleasure visually. Airline ticket counters now occupy a brightly lit terminal lobby whose ceilings soar 60 feet high. On the ground level, a new and expanded baggage carousel system awaits holiday travelers.

And while the terminal's interior boasts an overall architectural spaciousness that both serves customers and addresses an airport's role as civic gateway, don't expect frills. Public art, carpeting, interior plantings and any flights of fancy aren't on the agenda. What the architecture firm of Gresham Smith and Partners has incorporated are generous doses of red brick and white trim (both inside and out) that allude vaguely to Virginia's Jeffersonian design traditions. And so, if the terminal is generous spatially, it is conservative architecturally.

What's important is how it functions. The flow is excellent.

The new terminal is H-shaped and divided into five distinct but visually well-connected areas that allow passengers to progress from entry to departure gates with ease.

First, there is a double-tiered driveway at the front of the airport. The upper level, where departing passengers are dropped off, is the handsomest aspect of the expanded complex. The roofline of the terminal climbs to 60 feet here and suggests the wings of a jet airplane. Just below this is a more pedestrian-scaled clear glass canopy that runs the length of the building to protect travelers. It can already be considered one of the most beautiful contemporary architectural features in the area. The canopy appears to be supported by a colonnade of eight asymmetrically-shaped columns that mark multiple entryways into the terminal.

There is another "wow" moment when one enters the terminal and is hit by the sheer volume of the room. It takes a major cue from the upper lobby of Eero Saarinen's sublime Dulles Airport (which was opened in 1963 in Loudoun County). But while the Dulles terminal has a famous upswept roof, the arc of Richmond's airport roof and ceiling veers downward.

Red brick is used on the lower levels of the exterior as well as the lower portion of the walls of the terminal lobby. The brick is broken with periodic thin courses of sandstone to suggest a more human scale. Major expanses of glass windows fill the upper reaches of the terminal's walls.

The floors throughout the airport are terrazzo in subtle shades of gray, blue and mauve and are laid in geometric patterns.

Centered on the terminal is a long corridor with a lower ceiling connecting the lobby with a spokelike, sky-lit sitting area surrounded by six retail and food operations. From here, two concourses branch off and lead through security areas to the departure and arrival gates.

The airport's overall axial plan works well in orienting visitors. In fact, if one enters the central front door and looks one hundred yards straight ahead, a large window provides fleeting glimpses of airplanes coming and going on the tarmac.

Those arriving pass from the gates to the central concourse, where they take an escalator down to the baggage areas and passenger pickup lanes or to the nearby parking areas on the ground level.

Architecturally, the overall complex is simple, sensible, dignified and unflashy.

There are still touch-ups and details being sorted out, since the airport is not slated for completion until spring. But Rich-monders and visitors to the city this holiday season should be pleased with the ease of movement and overall comfort provided by this long-awaited entrance to the city. S

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