Looking Skyward, Feeling Grounded

The airport that heralded the jet age still has the power to enchant and inspire.


Washington Dulles International Airport located in Dulles, Virginia.

Credit: Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority

Deep beneath the tarmac of the Washington Dulles International Airport, in the tunnel connecting the main terminal with Concourse B, a sign advertising the Potbelly sandwich shop hangs prominently on a wall:


The implication, of course, is that the airport is the last place where anyone would want to be.  The travel writer Pico Iyer notes that the modern airport provides "an anthology of generic spaces," such as "the shopping mall, the food court, [and] the hotel lobby," paradoxically offering these creature comforts to people "whose only attention is on when they can get out." Indeed, as I look at all the bleary-eyed travelers on this April afternoon, trudging down the moving walkway, dragging their carry-on luggage the way you would pull an unwilling child, it seems that a turkey-and-Swiss on white is not going to bring them much relief.

Among Washingtonians, Dulles—designed in the late 1950s by Eero Saarinen, whose other works include the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the TWA terminal at New York's JFK Airport—comes in for a particularly rude brand of abuse. Locals find its design less than charming: too much concrete, too dated. And they consider its distance from the District of Columbia—27 miles—an off-putting inconvenience. Reagan National Airport, they say, is far closer, more pleasant; the Baltimore-Washington International Airport is at least accessible by train.

But for me, Dulles exerts a strong, seductive, almost indescribable pull. I do happen to love airports—and international airports especially—and have always experienced the great thrill of travel not in the air, but on the ground, in the terminal, among the jetlagged or fresh-faced, with hours to kill or minutes to spare, surrounded by the brilliant cacophony of foreign languages colliding. Dulles awakens my imagination in even greater ways. If I have the choice, I will always fly from there, instead of the more convenient Reagan National. And I will gladly volunteer to pick up arriving friends, if only to indulge myself for a brief time in the structure's elegance and beauty. I simply could not imagine a statelier, more exciting airport than that great modernist gateway to the American capital.

The drive to Dulles anticipates some of the excitement of seeing it, for the approach is like a game of peek-a-boo. The first glimpse of the airport comes when you are still a few miles away. There in the distance, between glass-faced office buildings, is the very tip of the control tower, crowning a row of trees. It quickly disappears, but then emerges again as the road subtly curves, a little bit more prominent now, between a hotel and the steel skeleton of a new building sheathed in scaffolding. Then it's gone again. But as you get closer, as the first signs for the airport's departure zones appear, the tower reemerges, taller yet, and it is as if that tower were rising up slowly from the earth. When the highway bends to the left, the entire airport comes finally, dramatically, into full view—the control tower resembling a jet-age lighthouse, the concrete-and-glass terminal, with its inverted arc of a roof and its columns angled outward like wings, giving the impression of a massive bird, at once grounded and yet ready to take off.

Saarinen conceived of Dulles—named for Eisenhower's first secretary of state, John Foster Dulles—as the first airport to cater solely to fleets of jet airplanes. Thus did Dulles herald a new and exciting age. With such lofty ambitions, its design would have to be bold. The concrete columns—the ribs of the main concourse—were constructed to hold up the concave roof via a set of flexible suspension cables. And the front of the terminal rises higher than the back, heightening the sense of drama. When finished, after four years of construction, the terminal resembled "a huge, continuous hammock suspended between concrete trees," as Saarinen himself put it. It was elegant, it was dignified, and it rose from the nearly 10,000 acres it was built upon like no other monument of its time, pointing the way to the skies above. It was also conceived with the federal architecture of Washington in mind. The concrete columns slope outward, but they form a colonnade nevertheless, one that recalls so many government buildings in the capital. As a result, this product of the dynamic jet age retains more than a whiff of stoic neoclassicism. For that reason alone, it could not be located anywhere but the Washington area; put it in Los Angeles, and it wouldn't be the same.

Saarinen intended the traveler to enter the terminal on the main level, but one of the unexpected joys of visiting the airport is to go through the lower level, as I do on this April afternoon, several hours before the departure of my flight. I walk up a ramp lined with rough, concrete walls to find myself in a kind of underground antechamber, a bit worn and gloomy. This is the arrivals area. The low ceilings and the fluorescent lights hover over the rotating baggage carousels and the kiosks selling soft drinks and magazines, and I almost have to squint, my senses adjusting from the warm and bright day I have left behind.

Up above, people are checking in and going through security screening. Here, down below, families fill the international arrivals area, awaiting the day's first flights from Europe. A man is shaving in a bathroom, not with the electric shaver favored by travelers, but with foam and razor blade, shaving casually and slowly, as if he were at home and had all the time in the world. Strangers strike up conversations—bizarre conversations possible only because the people involved are quite sure they'll never see each other again. You can be nosier at the airport than almost anywhere else, as evidenced by the middle-aged Indian woman in a sari, traveling with her ancient, silver-haired mother, who, after espying another Indian nearby, a tall young man, asks him shyly, "Eh—how tall are you?" "Six-foot seven," he replies cautiously. "But I have never seen Indians so tall!" she says. The two now begin to talk in earnest, the tentative, uncertain opening collapsing into a flurry of Hindi that I cannot understand.

Elsewhere: a different kind of encounter. I leave the crowds and wander down to the far end of the arrivals hall, curious about an exhibit located there, and as I turn and head down a set of stairs, in an otherwise empty part of the airport, I come nearly face to face with a Muslim man in front of a wall, prostrate upon a prayer mat, his upturned palms cupped before him. He looks up, gives me an uneasy look. I have disturbed his moment of contemplation. He is not pleased. It's time, I think, to head upstairs.

Walking up to the ticketing area is like entering another world. The effect is heightened precisely because I have entered the terminal from below, from the cramped, slightly claustrophobic arrivals zone. At once, I am immersed in light, the bright sunshine flooding in through the large glass curtain walls. Everything around me—the smooth, dipping roof, the massive columns holding it up, the concrete walls—expresses a feeling of both lightness and heft, a magical contradiction.

There is a black-and-white photograph of this terminal, taken shortly after it was finished, depicting a sparse crowd of well-dressed travelers, men in suits carrying sturdy suitcases and a woman in a stylish dress. Perhaps because so few people are in the shot, you look at them only briefly; your eye quickly shifts to the open spaces and the shape of the terminal, to the curves, the angles, the sense of style, the evocation of movement and freedom.

Rare would be the time today when Saarinen's terminal is sparsely inhabited. The open spaces are no more, taken up by lumbering baggage-screening machines and congested security lines. And the travelers don't wear suits anymore; they don T-shirts and sweatpants, the former elegance and dignity of travel now a distant memory. But we are also in the midst of an uncertain age of airline travel, a nervy, edgy time. In our post-9/11 world of shoe bombers and orange alerts, the airport becomes, more than ever before, a place potentially fraught with hidden dangers, a place where you don't necessarily want to linger. In airports where the architecture is as riveting as your typical in-flight meal (in the unlikely event that you get an in-flight meal), I can't help but focus on the dangers as I remove my shoes and belt to pass through the metal detector, handing over my plastic bag filled with miniature containers of mouthwash and toothpaste. But here, at Dulles, there is something more than reassuring about the angled colonnade, the swooping roof, and all that glass. I can forget, for a moment, the troubles of the present and imagine again the romance and the confidence of an earlier time. For me, there is more than nostalgia in Saarinen's sweeping curves. There is optimism as well.

In the beginning, there was only the main terminal and the control tower. You arrived through the front doors, checked in, moved to the back of the terminal, and were taken, via a so-called mobile lounge, directly to your airplane. Saarinen did quite a bit of research to make sure this process was as swift as possible. But he also knew that airport traffic, in terms of both planes and passengers, would only increase, and he knew that his terminal would eventually have to be altered and enlarged, a process that has taken place several times over the years. In 1996, the main terminal was expanded to 1.1 million square feet (the new length of 1,240 feet being twice that of the original), with the curved roofline extended and glass walls installed to blend seamlessly with what already existed. Today, a major midfield concourse of 442,000 square feet stands between the main terminal and the runways, as do temporary concourses that will eventually be replaced with a permanent structure.

With all this expansion (and a great deal more is planned in the near future), travelers are taken farther and farther away from Saarinen's terminal. I must catch my flight, and so I head to Concourse B. To get there, I leave the security checkpoint and descend a set of stairs to a long tunnel (where that ad for Potbelly sandwiches hangs). It's a five-minute subterranean stroll along the moving walkways, and at the end, I ride up an escalator and emerge into a wide departures hall, with the flags of the world's countries hanging from the rafters.

Here, in this bright, new, and gleaming space, I am far from Saarinen's world. But there is a different kind of life here, a different kind of excitement. The flight announcements on the intercom and the messages for various travelers ring out in a range of foreign accents, and even other languages. The entire room is alive with a riot of color: the parade of Lufthansa flight attendants in their yellow scarves, the KLM stewardesses in their powder-blue uniforms, the Austrian Airlines crew in their lipstick-red suits. There are duty-free shops and fast-food stands and kiosks selling political T-shirts and software that promises to teach you a variety of foreign languages. And though there are plenty of travelers, a sense of calm pervades here, so unlike other international airports I have been to—Amsterdam or Heathrow, for example, where you feel a constant buzz, a barely controlled chaos, or Buenos Aires, where the notion of a queue is as foreign as a vegetable. Here, at Dulles' Concourse B, you can go to the massage bar, where weary travelers recline in chairs and get their shoulders rubbed. Or you can enter the airport chapel; today, only one person is inside, visible through the clear doors, while on a television a film about Jesus plays. In one corner of the concourse, away from the crowded gates, four Asian airport employees sit together on the floor, eating their dinner, the rice in their plastic containers topped with a beguiling mix of meat and vegetables.

This is all evidence of everyday life being lived in what is, by definition, a temporary, intermediary space, a gateway presumably to someplace else, someplace better. The details are reassuring. And yet, I must admit that I feel slightly disheartened to no longer be inside the main terminal. The day wears on, the concourse fills up, the international flights begin to depart, and the time approaches for me to board my own plane. It is then that I realize, of course, that I still have Saarinen in my sights. He was there, in fact, all along. On one side of this rectangular departure hall are the food court banalities—Harry's Tap Room, the Tequileria, Matsutake Sushi, Potbelly—but on the other side, beyond the rows of chairs filled with travelers, through the floor-to-ceiling windows, is a clear view of the main terminal and control tower. There it is, that temple of glass and concrete, several hundred yards away. Seeing it now reminds me of the fundamental irony about Saarinen's building: that in a structure where people are coming and going, in constant, fevered motion, I feel a decided rootedness, a palpable sense of place. I must have a perverse streak. Who feels that way about an airport?

It is nighttime now, and the terminal, illuminated from within, has taken on an otherworldly appearance, the texture of the glass so different from the way it looks in daylight. It has a tactile, liquid quality now. I remember why I especially like coming here at night. What a magnificent structure Dulles is in the dark! It glows; it is majestic. I take one last lingering look, before heading to my gate.

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