Home   Architects   Styles  













Name   Dulles International Airport
Architects   SAARINEN, EERO (with Ammann and Whitney)
Date   1962
Address   1 Saarinen Circle Dulles, Chantilly, Virginia, USA, VA 20166
Floor Plan    

This airport, located 28 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., was conceived as the international gateway to the nation’s capital. 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 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 pagoda- inspired 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 walkto 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). 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.



Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.1 (A-F). Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005. 


Further Reading

Dulles International Airport was spotlighted as being among the last works fully attributable to Eero Saarinen in the monograph by Allan Temko and in the compilation of Saarinen’s remarks as edited by his widow, Aline Saarinen. Aline Saarinen also participated, with Edgar J. Kaufmann, Jr., in a documentary film, “Eero Saarinen Architect (1910–1961),” filmed largely inside the main concourse at Dulles and distributed in 1967 by Columbia University Press. Since the 1960s, only infrequent attention has been paid to the airport, despite its reputation worldwide.

Brodherson, David, “‘An Airport in Every City’: The History of American Airport Design,” in Building for Air Travel, edited by John Zukowsky, Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1996

Kaufmann, Edgar J., Jr., “Our Largest Airports: Dulles International Airport, O’Hare International Airport,” Progressive Architecture, 44 (August 1963)

McQuade, Walter, “A New Airport for Jets,” Architectural Record, 127 (March 1960) Nakamura, Toshio (editor), Eero Saarinen, Tokyo: A+U Publishing, 1984

Saarinen, Aline B. (editor), Eero Saarinen on His Work, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1962; revised edition, 1968

Temko, Allan, Eero Saarinen, New York: Braziller, 1962

Tzonis, Alexander, Liane Lefaivre, and Richard Diamond, Architecture in North America since 1960, Boston: Bulfinch Press, and London: Thames and Hudson, 1995 

Photos and Plan    






New Projects






Support us