Alexandra Lange | Essays

The Still-Expanding Airport

Drawing from the MoMA Collection, gift of Aline Saarinen.

In 1958, after some failed attempts by the Saarinen office to make a stop-motion film of their model for Dulles Airport, Eero Saarinen called upon his old friend Charles Eames to help him out. The office had spent months researching the new jet airport, and had come to a number of conclusions about how best to connect people and planes. Among their researches was accounting for the steps taken from car to terminal, terminal to gate. In Eames’s resulting film, The Expanding Airport, the distressed passenger’s apparently endless path is animated, shown as a long dashed line, with some nice slapstick involving luggage and children. (I would link to a clip or a still, but the Eames Office, for better and worse, is copyright mad. You can watch the film on this disc, or read a play-by-play in this book.)

Saarinen’s solution to the forced march was simple. Shrink the airport, motorize the path. Dulles, like the TWA Terminal, would have a small footprint, just big enough for the necessary gates and shops. But where TWA passengers traveled a long hall to get to their spiny gate hubs, Dulles passengers would hop on a Mobile Lounge assigned to a specific flight, sit there until it was time to take off, and then be transported directly to their plane, sitting in a satellite location on the tarmac.

I recently flew through Dulles for the first time, and was delighted to see most of its charms intact. On the upper level of the terminal, the gates and signs and stanchions — the branded and security clutter — are still mostly below the line Saarinen drew in the concrete. That means his parabolic roof, lifting up to create a view of the sky to which passengers will soon repair, still floats free. And passengers still have to pass through his flight hall, despite the presence of two new bar-like terminals behind it. Both have been made deliberately blank on the outside so that they are no competition. It made me sad for TWA all over again, empty of bustle, with the new Terminal 5 biting at its heels. I think of Saarinen every time I walk down the long, hot, white hall from the AirTrain to the JetBlue gates. It takes 10 minutes, it is totally unpleasant, and whoever designed it should be fired.

I got to ride in a Mobile Lounge (soon to be replaced by a quick and well-designed underground train, the signage alone puts the AirTrain to shame) and thought two things. One, Dulles is not using the lounges right. They take a motley crew of passengers to the new terminals, where we have to walk to a variety of gates. And two, the problem of the expanding airport is as pressing now as it was in 1958. I stopped to get a sandwich in the newest terminal, B, and was forced into a long march to the center of the bar. There was sunlight, and a few banners, but the design was undistinguished and the train could only take me to one end. There was still an imaginary dashed line behind me and my suitcase, adding steps to my trip in the terminal, at the Dulles entrance, at the rental car pickup. Saarinen thought he solved the problem, but someone needs to solve it all over again.

Posted in: Architecture, History

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