Designed by Eero Saarinen and Associates, completed 1962
Chantilly, Virginia
This airport, located 28 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., was conceived as the
international gateway to the nation’s capi tal. President Eisenhower made the final site
selection in 1958, and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) commissioned Eero Saarinen
and Associates to build the first American airport designed specifically to handle jet
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airplanes. In a quirk of timing, this symbol of international welcome was named for
Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, the bellicose point man for
America’s Cold War policies before his death in 1959. The airport design was innovative
on several counts, including its automobile traffic pattern (with separate levels for
arrivals, departures, and parking) and its controversial “mobile lounges,” which detach
from the main terminal building to ferry passengers out to airplanes parked next to the
runways. In 1962 these odd-looking vehicles were considered a breakthrough in airport
efficiency and passenger comfort. The model was never copied at any other airport,
although the mobile lounges do remain in use at Dulles Airport, supplemented by a few
fixed gates added to the airport in the mid-1990s. Modifications to the airport were far
more visible in 1997, as work commenced to extend the main terminal building 300 feet
at either end, doubling its original length. Undisturbed by these alterations, the pagodainspired
air traffic control tower (initially planned to include an observation deck)
continues to oversee the airport, providing a strong vertical accent to balance the
emphatic horizontality of the site and the enlarged terminal building.
Saarinen had anticipated the need for expansion, designing the pavilion-like terminal
as a set of 15 modular bays that were easily replicated by the builders of the additions.
The bays, each 40 feet wide, are framed by rows of concrete piers standing a
monumentalizing 65 feet tall along the main facade and then dipping to 40 feet in height
on the air side of the pavilion as a sheltering gesture for passengers arriving aboard the
mobile lounges. As at the TWA Airport Terminal (1962), also designed by Eero Saarinen
and Associates and located at New York’s John F.Kennedy Airport, custom-styled
concrete supports were required to make possible the unique roof form at Dulles, justly
celebrated for its bold upward sweep from back to front. Saarinen described the roof as
“like a huge continuous hammock suspended between concrete trees [and] made of light
suspension-bridge cables between which the concrete panels of the roof deck fit.” The
piers of the opposing colonnades slant away from each other to counteract the load of the
poured-in-place slabs carried by the cables. However, as the architect acknowledged, “we
exaggerated and dramatized this outward slope [of the piers] to give the colonnade a
dynamic and soaring look as well as a stately and dignified one.” The desired effect was
to maintain some connection with Federal traditions of static, neoclassical architecture
while still pulling off the kind of grand expressive gesture that Saarinen saw as essential,
given the use of the building.
Saarinen did not live to see the airport completed, as he died during
surgery for a brain tumor in 1961. Two of his associates, Kevin Roche and
John Dinkeloo, inherited the firm and supervised the construction of
Dulles Airport together with the engineering firm of Ammann and
Whitney and airport consultant Charles Landrum. Roche recalls the early
stages of the work, when all discussion of the appearance and structure of
the airport were held in abeyance for 14 months after the commission was
received while the functional scheme for the passenger concourse was
worked out. Any Saarinen staffer traveling by plane was under strict
orders to note the time taken to check-in, to walk to the departure gate, and to receive baggage at every airport they visited. According to
Roche, Saarinen always traveled with a stopwatch, methodically recording such details
and, invariably, reaching his gate at the last possible moment, “just to drive me crazy.”
Having boiled down the passenger data to produce an ideal plan, comprising the
concourse and mobile lounges, Saarinen brought in friends Charles and Ray Eames to
produce a documentary that was intended to help sell the airlines on the scheme. Airline
officials were not fully convinced by the ten-minute cartoon short, “The Expanding
Airport.” However, the CAA came down firmly on Saarinen’s side, alerted by the film to
the fact that the proposed 1000-foot-long pavilion concourse would have to stretch to
8000 feet if they opted for a conventional “finger-terminal” airport of equal capacity.
Their plan for the new airport approved, Saarinen and his design team embarked on
the search for a suitable form for its main pavilion. Dozens of sketches, now in the
archives at Yale University, show what a remarkable variety of shapes were considered—
rows of barrel vaults and of ziggurats as well as jagged roof forms, as if drawn by
Picasso. Ultimately, Saarinen looked back to his own work, on the cable-strung roof of
the Ingalls Hockey Rink (1959), built by the firm on the Yale campus in New Haven,
Connecticut. The hammock form that evolved for the airport pavilion has since been
celebrated to the point where the U.S. Postal Service printed a 20-cent stamp to honor the
building as part of a series in the 1980s dedicated to American architecture. Suitably, a jet
airplane is seen on the stamp, climbing into the sky (but in a direction perpendicular to
the runways, as if it somehow took off from the concourse roof).
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Heralded as “The Temple of Travel,” the central pavilion itself appears to hover above
the flat plains of the airport runways. Approached by car, Dulles Airport can be seen as a
“Jet-Age Parthenon,” resting on an “Acropolis” created by the tiers of roadways stacked
up at its front. In its thrusting expressionistic posture, the pavilion is also reminiscent of
designs by Erich Mendelsohn, particularly that portrayed by his 1914 sketch,
“Architectural Fantasy.” In turn, Saarinen’s airport buildings (if not his mobile lounges)
have inspired imitation, as in Renzo Piano’s Kansai Airport (1994) at Osaka, Japan, and
in an airport design by Santiago Calatrava for Bilbao, Spain. That Saarinen knew that he
and his firm had created something special at Dulles is evident from comments made just
two months before his death: “I think this airport is the best thing I have done…. Maybe
it will even explain what I believe about architecture.” At the very least, he matched the
feat performed by his father, architect Eliel Saarinen, at the Helsinki Train Terminal
(1914) in Finland by likewise providing his country with a transportation gateway that is
a masterpiece of its genre.

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