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Dulles International Airport

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1958–1962, Eero Saarinen and Ammann and Whitney Engineers; Dan Kiley, landscape architect. 1980, addition, Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum. 1989, international arrivals addition, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. 1995–1997, expansion, SOM. 1996–1998, Concourse B expansion, HOK. Washington-Dulles Toll Road (VA 267), Chantilly

Eero Saarinen described the design for the Dulles terminal as “a strong form between earth and sky that seems both to rise from the plain and hover over it,” and “a huge, continuous hammock suspended between concrete trees.” The dramatic form with huge piers and sloping roof captured the Zeitgeist. Saarinen, who died ten months before its completion, created a new monumental gateway to the capital of the United States and, from the perspective of the time, the “free” (i.e., non-Communist) West. Its naming for Eisenhower's secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, one of the hardiest of the Cold War warriors, was thus entirely appropriate. The site was gigantic (9,600 acres), and Saarinen conceived of the terminal as indeterminately expandable, a rigorous critique of existing terminals. The thrusting suspended roof, with piers 65 feet high on the approach side and 43 feet on the field side, sits on top of a podium that contains in its basement all the messy activities of baggage handling and services. The main floor was designed as an open, porous space with ticket counters along the middle, from which passengers would proceed to mobile lounges that would convey them to planes waiting at mid-field. Saarinen wanted to avoid the long walks and finger terminals common to most American airports and to enhance the aesthetic of flight. Seating was designed by the Office of Charles and Ray Eames, both of whom had been Saarinen's colleagues at Cranbrook in the 1930s. Dan Kiley, who collaborated with Saarinen on many projects, designed the graceful approach from which the terminal rises out of the Piedmont plain and the close-in parking lot.

Unfortunately, Saarinen could not foresee the many changes that would come in the late twentieth century: security check-in; “hubbing”; the proliferation of commuter airlines, which require means of access other than mobile lounges; mammoth jetliners; waiting areas; and, indeed, the vast expansion of air travel. Along the rear of the terminal SOM designed a 50-foot-wide corridor and an ungainly box at mid-field that became the terminal for long-distance jets, with mobile lounges to ferry passengers back and forth. Saarinen's concept of the terminal itself as expandable has been achieved with a 600-foot addition by SOM (1995–1997) that doubles the original length. The extension—or, really, extrusion—of the original actually makes the building more commanding against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A new mid-field terminal by HOK has an appropriately subservient exterior and a bright and airy interior. Slated for obsolescence are the mobile lounges. Hailed at its completion and ever since as one of the great modern buildings, the terminal itself remains a thrilling architectural space and an aesthetic delight.

The area surrounding Dulles Airport is booming as a corporate center. New buildings are announced with amazing frequency, and a few are of interest. In addition to CIT (preceding entry), see also the National Reconnaissance Office (1988–1993, Dewberry and Davis; 14765 Lee Road), observable from Virginia 28 (Sully Road), adjacent to Dulles. The striking blue glass and metal structures do not hide very well this supposedly “secret” governmental agency.

Writing Credits

Richard Guy Wilson et al.


What's Nearby


Richard Guy Wilson et al., "Dulles International Airport", [Sterling, Virginia], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Buildings of Virginia: Tidewater and Piedmont, Richard Guy Wilson and contributors. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, 60-61.

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