Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Airport enabled

Dulles is so goddamned gorgeous—of course it winds up squirreled away in Herndon, Virginia. I don't love going out to that airport by any means, and the interior is difficult to navigate and ugly to boot. If by some combination of mishaps and misfortunes, though, you come to arrive on time but miss your flight, it's the best airport for a stroll.

I love Eero Saarinen's designs: the Gateway Arch is a great symbol for America and for freedom. Susan and I drove through St. Louis once, and she double-taked when I declared my love for the place, since we hadn't even stoped. I have great feelings about that place: Any city that erects optimistic, minimalist sculpture on that monumental scale is okay with me.

Now, I don't know about those space-y lounge cars Saarinen included with the original Dulles design—downing a martini on the shuttle doesn't sound like the way to kill the time between terminals. I don't even think most people here have found the wifi network. Airports, indicators of the newfangled, seem to be getting less futuristic as time goes on.


Anonymous tom said...

It'd make a beautiful warehouse, but it's a useless airport. As lovely as it is when approaching from a distance, pretty much everything else about it is aggressively ugly and inconvenient.

The outside view of an airport seems like the last thing that an architect ought to be worried about: with screaming jet engines taking off, cars honking and, as you note, nothing nearby, none of its positive qualities can actually be admired very often.

1:27 PM  
Blogger texas N/A said...

Formalists don't really worry about things like "decibels" or "people," Tommy. I wouldn't be too severe on the architect in this case: everyone thought that airports were going to be social hubs, since the jetset would be the only people congregating there, so it made sense to build something nifty. And along with that Sandcrawler office building, Dulles airport is the only distinguishing characteristic within
40 miles.

It still makes sense—really, it's the worst-case scenarios, like airports, that make possible the best architectural contributions. If you've ever been to a truly awful airport—I'll play my trump card: Shermetyevo in Moscow—then you know that bad design can instill real anxiety, even terror. Sinan gets credit for his contributions to the Harem, but c'mon, as if the Sultan ever even noticed.

The Dulles interior is actually just as fantastic as the exterior. But the effect is hampered by the ticketing booths, which don't match or even resemble the design of the building, and worse still are in fact gigantic booths that block out a good deal of the interior sightline. They should be the desks like you find in airports everywhere. It wouldn't hurt to build in one of those walking conveyor belts. My primary complaint about Dulles is that it's just too long.

7:59 AM  
Anonymous tom said...

I agree that the interior has the potential to be appealing, in a limited sense -- that swooping ceiling should be impressive from inside and out. But the effect is undercut not only by the ticketing booths, which you mention, but also by the dated-looking materials used on the floors and ceiling. And the ramps by which you enter the terminal and evil, stooped cave by which you exit don't seem like they were given much thought at all.

I imagine that lines were shorter and security less onerous (or extant) when the airport was designed. But I have a hard time believing that anyone was ever able to take the mobile lounge idea very seriously. It just doesn't seem like very much thought was given to how the building would be used -- the process of getting on or off a plane there is claustrophobic and anxiety-inducing, particularly when you're routed through any of the creepy tunnels. I suppose a lot of that is due to subsequent and ongoing construction, though.

You're dead-on about the conveyor, but they'd have to push the booths further back -- there already isn't enough space between the front wall and the ticketing booths.

If money were no object, I'd vote for building a new, more humane terminal on the other side of the runways. The original building would have made a great home for the Air & Space Museum expansion project -- that's the sort of thing that it seems really well-suited for.

8:22 AM  
Blogger texas N/A said...

I'll try to take note of some of those features on my return flight. I don't recall ever flying into Dulles.

I suspect—and not merely in hopes of letting Saarinen off the hook here—that many of the irritating features you mention are the result of after-the-fact implementation, additions, and deletions. It's hard to build new airports to replace old ones: They're expensive, NIMBY, and so on.

But in the ideal case, a museum or summat like that? Maybe so. Many architects do not take too seriously the notion that a building is wedded to its intended purpose. This has caused me great angst recently, since the Mies library can't really survive as it currently stands except as a public building. (Once the curtains fly up, and the lobby is partitioned, and the exterior is painted white, it's not really a Mies any more.) Dulles would look pretty silly as anything other than an airport, air & space museum, or all-you-can-eat buffalo wings buffet.

10:17 AM  
Blogger The Governess said...

stop frontin on herndon, uc. some people are from texas, some people grew up in thu shadow of Saarinen.

8:47 AM  

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