Dulles Airport: Where the architect's legacy soars

By Roger K. Lewis
Friday, December 3, 2010; 10:23 AM

A few days after attending a reception at the Embassy of Finland celebrating an exhibition about architect Eero Saarinen, I flew out of Dulles International Airport, designed by Saarinen 50 years ago. Passing through Dulles, whose years of transformative improvements are nearly complete, affirmed the exhibition's thesis: Saarinen was among the most innovative architects of the 20th century.

Perhaps Saarinen's most well-known project, the iconic Dulles terminal is recognized and admired by millions, even people who have never visited it. Architects continually cite it as one of America's greatest works of modern architecture. Designed as a jet-age threshold and gateway, the terminal is a kind of super-scaled pavilion, a place of transition between movement on land and movement through the air.

Two characteristics, in particular, make Dulles unique. It has proved functionally durable because of the terminal's flexibility and adaptability to changing needs. Owing to the clarity of its dynamic, metaphoric geometry, its aesthetic quality also has endured, transcending shifting architectural trends.

The symbolic form of the Dulles terminal was achieved with remarkably few- yet visually potent- elements. A thin, curving, wing-like roof of cable-reinforced concrete hovers over the vast, column-free interior. Its convex underside is a smooth surface free of detail or decoration. The roof literally hangs between two parallel rows of tapered, dramatically sloping reinforced concrete columns, one row leaning toward the vehicular approach side and the other row leaning toward the airfield side. It's "like a huge, continuous hammock suspended between concrete trees," observed the Finnish Embassy exhibition notes.

The tops of the massive columns, spaced 40 feet apart, curve outward and grab the roof's upturned edges only after penetrating through large apertures in the roof near the edges. This structurally gymnastic connection, despite the size of the columns, makes the roof appear to be an airfoil floating weightlessly overhead. The sense of lightness is further heightened by use of subtly curved, glass curtain walls filling the voids between columns.

The transformations at Dulles, mostly underground on the airfield side, have vindicated Saarinen's creative foresightedness. The main terminal continues to be the threshold experience for departing passengers who still begin their journey by entering and passing through the terminal. Of course, beyond the terminal, the multi-level pedestrian experience is now much longer. You descend via escalators through monumentally scaled spaces and the greatly expanded security area, then walk to the tramway to ride to the outlying concourses.

Anticipating growth in airport usage, Saarinen designed the terminal to be expanded. Indeed, stretching the original terminal to its current length some years ago actually enhanced the building's overall proportions, fulfilling Saarinen's intentions and strengthening the terminal's prominence and relationship to the broad airport landscape.

The airport authority has wisely safeguarded this relationship by not crowding the terminal with massive, visually obstructive parking garages or other structures. At many airports, terminals have become part of sprawling building agglomerations. Dulles can be seen and appreciated architecturally from afar.

The son of well-known Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, Eero Saarinen became a naturalized American citizen in 1940 and 10 years later established his own practice. he died of a brain tumor in 1961, at the age of 51, after practicing fewer than a dozen years. But he was prolific during that all-too-brief period. By 1961 he and his exceptional projects already were nationally and internationally acclaimed. And, like Dulles, some of his most structurally innovative projects were completed after his death, notably the bird-like TWA Terminal at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, built in 1962, and the soaring Gateway Arch in St. Louis overlooking the Mississippi River, built in 1965.

While living in a dormitory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology designed by another famous Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto, I passed daily two Saarinen buildings from the 1950s. MIT's Kresge Auditorium is a structural tour-de-force, a spherical dome of thin-shell concrete perched on only three points. Complementing it across the lawn is the small, intimate MIT Chapel, a brick-clad cylinder inspiringly illuminated inside and surrounded outside by a moat. The contrast - in size, shape, structure and materials - between the two buildings is striking.

As an architecture student, I admired Saarinen, not because I wanted to emulate his work, but rather because his approach seemed original and non-formulaic. Unlike many architectural heroes then and now, Saarinen didn't develop a replicable, signature style. While adhering to timeless design principles, he and his structural engineering collaborators undertook design exploration anew with every project. Each building was inventively shaped by site and context, functional needs, state-of-the-art technology and client aspirations, as well as by Saarinen's evolving ideas about form and structure.

Thanks to the recent Finnish Embassy exhibition and my latest Dulles Airport experience, my admiration for Saarinen and his design philosophy has not diminished.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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