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Gaming Guru

Kristen Peterson

Airport's art zone

26 November 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The D gates concourse at McCarran International Airport is a contemporary wonderland of international travel and slot machine folly. Natural light pours onto glossy floors and metallic accents. A glorious stroll through spacious high-ceilinged walkways leads you into a slick, cavernous rotunda that features an artist's terrazzo floor design - a colorful rendition of the Las Vegas Valley as seen in aeronautical maps. It is here that four young tourists discuss sculpture.

Their flight has just landed. The baggage claim is a tram ride away. But they ponder and photograph sculpture, specifically David Phelps' large-scale concrete works of native wildlife - a scorpion, a snake and a horned toad - plotted on the ground as part of the airport's public art program.

"There is not as much shape to the scorpion," says Edmund Wu from Alberta, making a direct comparison to the snake. Dexter Bell from Vancouver, B.C., nods in agreement and suggests that a more pronounced tail jutting from the scorpion's hind end would create an aggressive presence.

They are not artists, they say, and had they arrived elsewhere at the airport, their conversation wouldn't be sculpturally driven because as most McCarran regulars know, the experience at the airport ranges from highbrow to lowbrow depending on the gate at which you arrive or depart.

The carpeted and less vast A and B gates offer all the amenities needed from an airport. But they are so much older and more conventional.

They don't carry the glamour of D gates, which also house Tony Milici's hanging steel and glass sculpture and landscape murals by Mary Warner, Robert Beckmann, Roy Purcell and others.

Adding to that are folk-arty tile murals by local school children created for the tram loading dock. And there is more on its way. The county recently approved the purchase of a $75,000 suspended glass sculpture for a wing being added to D, and that follows an approval of a mural by Erik Burke - also for a wing of D.

So what gives?

"It's not that they are any less important. It's more about what fit the needs at the time," says Chris Jones, McCarran spokesman. "Space is the biggest constraining issue at McCarran, particularly at the older A and B gates. When you're starting with a clean palette, you can certainly be more creative as far as allocation of art and more amenities." Built to hold a little more than 40 million passengers a year, he says, McCarran now accommodates 48 million passengers. "Space is just so tight."

But before we can accuse the A and B gates of aesthetic deficiency, Jones adds a surprising little tidbit about the main terminal.

"It was ahead of its time when it was built. When the building opened it was architecturally significant. They call it the clamshell. It's got big swooping ceilings."


Yes, says Mark Hall-Patton, local historian and museum administrator for the Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum.

"It's still significant. It's one of the least known architectural marvels in the valley. People don't tend to think of it because it's within a much larger structure."

But, oh, what a stand-alone beauty was that first terminal when it opened in March 1963, he says.

Welton Becket and Associates, along with John Replogle, designed the building in the spirit of Eero Saarinen's futurist TWA terminal at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport (1962) and the LAX's super-futurist "Theme Building," of which Becket was a participating architect (1961).

The rotunda for the A and B gates is indeed a "jet age" terminal with swooping roof lines, a hollow shell dome and no internal support.

"It's one of the very few buildings in the nation done this way because it hit in a period when it was economically feasible to build that way," Hall-Patton says. The rotunda, he adds, is also an engineering marvel recognized by civil engineering groups.

Even more recent sprinkler installation forced creative thinking. Because of the concrete roof, holding nothing other than itself, and the lack of support beams, the water system is attached to ceiling-high metallic palm trees.

But it's at the D gates, which opened in 1998, where a blue-jeaned passenger steps backward, suitcase in hand, to examine the rotunda's floor design while a toddler climbs a horned toad and two women pose with Phelps' giant snake. The snake is placed on the floor in pieces and appears to be slithering above and below the surface.

Looking at the uniquely displayed reptile, Seattle traveler Kristen Reaves says, "I like the snake. I like how it looks like it's underwater."