Some buildings wow from the outside. Frank Gehry's undulating silvery museums come to mind, as do the snow-colored fabric peaks of the Denver airport.
Sacramento's new airport terminal isn't one of these. Hurried travelers heading down the road toward the terminal are unlikely to stop and gasp with delight at its glass-curtained walls or the arched metal eaves of its roof, which vaguely resemble wings.
Once people get inside, however, they would have to be pretty oblivious not to notice that the new $1 billion Central Terminal B is a huge improvement certainly from the old Terminal B but also from Terminal A, a structure that itself inspired a puffing of local pride when it opened 13 years ago, prompting a critic for this newspaper to opine: "We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto."
Whenever Sacramento gets something cool, locals tend to exclaim that it makes them feel like they aren't in Sacramento at all. This new terminal, set to open Thursday, has already produced quite a few such comments among those who have previewed it. But the project's architects say the whole point of Terminal B is to make you feel like you're in Sacramento and that it's an exciting place.
The four-story terminal is a soaring, light-filled space with only four columns to break up the central gathering and ticketing area. Floor to ceiling glass covers the walls on three sides. The glass looks clear from a distance, but upon close inspection is covered with little dots of paint, which diffuse the light.
Surrounding the building are fixed metal louvres intended to shield the interior from direct sun while allowing plenty of light to enter. They do the job most of the time, although the light inside the terminal can get a bit blinding in early evening.
The idea was to create "a building that encloses you but doesn't close you in," said lead architect Brent Kelley of Corgan Associates.
"One of the things people really love about this area is being able to spend so much time outdoors," he added.
The vaulted ceiling is covered with wood slats, a material intended to soften the space and evoke Sacramento's tree canopy. The blond maple slats are bordered by darker stripes of old-growth redwood recycled from the former trestle bridge at Franklin Boulevard and Thornton Road in south Sacramento County, where 40,000 Mexican free-tailed bats roosted before it was torn down.
A central skylight brings the Sacramento sun into the ticketing floor and the baggage claim below. And outside the windows, a 9- acre garden is planted in curving sections that mimic the farm fields in the Valley floor just beyond the airport's borders.
Above, the mezzanine level offers a panoramic view of the ticketing area, the garden and most of all the 56-foot-long red rabbit created by Denver artist Lawrence Argent.
The aluminum rabbit crisscrossed by black seams that make it look like Spider-Man bunny will be the talker of the terminal. Some people will love it and some people will hate it, but they sure won't miss it. The rabbit is suspended over the escalator, leaping toward a granite suitcase the size of a queen bed two floors down in the baggage area. The top of the suitcase is a swirling vortex.
Argent, who also created the 40-foot tall blue bear at the downtown Denver convention center, has said he wanted to suggest that the rabbit could have just leaped in from the nearby fields. The rabbit is red to symbolize speed, he has said, and our desire to get to our stuff down in the baggage claim.
But really, why a rabbit in Sacramento? Who knows, maybe Argent just likes rabbits. But it just so happens there are plenty of jackrabbits out in those Natomas fields.
Bigger, but way better
Bunnies aside, what travelers are mainly looking for in an airport is a comfortable, easy way to get in and out fast. In this regard, it would be hard to improve on the current experience in Sacramento, which is about as easy as airline travel gets.
The new terminal is bigger than the two existing terminals combined, and its public portions are spread over three levels rather than two. Also, passengers will have to take a brief ride on a people mover to get to their gates.
But the new terminal and its companion concourse building have plenty to offer in the way of comfort. They were designed for the post-9/11 world, where people arrive at the airport earlier and can't take their companions with them beyond the security checkpoint.
With that in mind, designers put plenty of stores, coffee shops and restaurants on both sides of security, so people have places to hang out. Sleek leather furniture and oversized rocking chairs an increasingly common fixture in airports sit next to the windows.
"The idea with the development of terminals nowadays is to really create a more passenger-friendly facility that takes into account the amount of time people spend in airports," Kelley said.
The terminal and concourse building are laid out along one axis, a "Main Street" of sorts, which is intended to keep people walking in the right direction. It would be hard to get lost, though some people surely will.
People movers can be a pain, especially when you're in a hurry, but this one is actually kind of fun. The ride takes just a few seconds and it's above ground kind of like a much-abbreviated version of the monorail at the State Fair. And since Sacramento isn't a connecting hub anyway, travelers won't be as stressed out and hurried as they are in Dallas or Denver.
Airport officials say they had to separate the concourse and terminal buildings in part to avoid disrupting business at the existing Terminal B during construction. The layout also will allow for more people movers and concourse buildings to be attached to the main terminal in the future.
"With additional concourses this building might last 100 years," said Denver architect Curt Fentress, whose firm also worked on the airport job.
Making flying fun
This was a $1 billion upgrade the biggest public works project in local history and the spending shows. The floors in the existing Terminal A are tile and carpet, which wears and chips. In the new Terminal B, the floors are covered with Terrazzo, which sparkles as light bounces off the glass and mother of pearl fragments within.
At the gates, many of the roomy leather seats are arranged in groups of two, separated by granite tables and cup holders, rather than in long rows. The idea is that you'll never have to sit next to more than one person you don't know, Kelley said.
The public art is also striking, though some pieces work better than others. It includes not just the rabbit but 12 other works, including floor mosaics, a house made of purple glass, a chandelier with crystal "acorns" hanging from a propeller-shaped oak branch and a big brass horn that translates typed messages into music.
As the airport prepares to open, architect Kelley is on hand to supervise every detail. Kelley hails from Dallas, but for the past eight years he has lived in Natomas so he could focus on the Sacramento project.
He said the new Terminal B and other new terminals opening around the country represent a "rebellion" against the utilitarian, uninspiring airports of the past, not to mention the general misery of getting through security these days.
His goal: "Bring the excitement back into flying."
So far, the terminal is getting positive reviews from people who have taken a look. Brady Smith, an architect from LPA Sacramento, attended a Sacramento Area Commerce & Trade Organization reception in the building last month.
"My first reaction when I came down the escalator and saw this space was 'wow,' " he said.
"I can't wait to take my kids here," he added. "They're going to love it. They're going to be excited about coming to the airport for once."
Bill Parcell, a senior vice president at Bank of Sacramento, was also mingling at the reception. "I still like Terminal A, but this starts to remind me more of the big airports Denver and Chicago," Parcell said.
OK, let's just say it: We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Well, maybe we still are. But we can forget about that for an hour or so when we go to our new airport.