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The celebrated wing-like roof and exterior of Dulles houses truly repellant interior spaces. Photo: © Donald Concer & Jenny Young /

The interior experience of the roof is like standing beneath a vast, sagging wet sheet. Upon entering for the first time, my five year old daughter looked up and trepidaciously said, "Daddy, it looks like the roof is going to fall down on us!" Photo: © Kevin Matthews /




A 'Masterpiece' 40 Years Out

By Milton Wilfred Grenfell, AIA

There remain a handful of early Modernist buildings that maintain their masterpiece aura despite the decline of their kindred ilk in public esteem, and due to the rough justice of the wrecking ball, a decline in number as well. The Seagram building, Fallingwater and Washington Dulles International Airport might be grouped in this diminishing herd of sacred cows. Alas, after several recent months of flying in and out of Dulles Airport, I'm convinced it's time to lead this old heifer off to the abattoir.

Let's begin by acknowledging that on one level architecture is entertainment. And every successful entertainer, whether a novelist, playwright, film director, composer or architect, understands that you have to "hook them" right at the opening. So what is Dulles's opening act? If one arrives by shuttle bus from Washington or remote parking lots, one is confronted by a battered wall of crudely faceted concrete, with periodic unadorned tunnels allowing access into some kind of subterranean space, the nature of which the exterior furnishes not a clue. These concrete greeting walls resemble nothing so much as overgrown "Jersey barriers," about which the only thing entertaining is that they bear a striking similarity to the menacing gun emplacements depicted in one of the favorite movies from my youth, The Guns of Navarone. This was roughly contemporaneous with the design of the airport and is perhaps an instance of life imitating art, except that the movie's happy ending had the Allied commandos dynamiting the gun emplacement.

But the more important opening act is how the building is perceived when one arrives by air, for this is a visitor's entry not just to the airport, but to our nation's capital and, for many, to the United States. The approach from this concourse to the terminal is by "Mobile Lounge," which might best be described as an oversized RV full of plastic seats. As the Mobile Lounge approaches the masterpiece in question, one notices that the front of the white, wing-shaped roof is beset with numerous unsightly streaks, which traditional buildings avoid through the use of cornices. Then there's the black goo oozing from the wing roof's exposed expansion joints. So what if airplane wings, ostensibly the roof's inspiration, don't have cornices or expansion joints? Heroic Modernists were never ones to allow practical concerns to muddy a metaphor.

At last the Mobile Lounge lurches up to the terminal and one is greeted by a row of truck loading docks, complete with torn and tattered rubber gaskets. No windows, doors, articulation, ornament or anything to suggest that this might be a place for people. Confronted by what appears to be a cargo terminal, one half expects to be greeted by a forklift.

Feeling a bit worn from the rigors of contemporary air travel, one enters the main terminal to the welcoming embrace of exposed aggregate poured-in-place concrete walls – the kind that will take your skin off should you accidentally brush up against one. And if the tactile hostility of the concrete walls isn't aesthetic offense enough, there's the niggling problem of the inevitable cold joints between the concrete pours, leaving unattractive random seams hither and yon. These seams, combined with unrelieved splotchiness due to uneven aggregate separations and the excellent dirt-catching capability of the rough aggregate, make for truly repellant interior spaces, the much-celebrated draped wet sheet of a roof/ceiling notwithstanding. It's astonishing to realize that the architect actually intended for these crude surfaces to be seen.

In an age of rapid technological change such as the 1960s, when Dulles was conceived, surely being able to gracefully accommodate change should have been a programmatic requirement. Yet moving partitions, signs, electrical outlets and the other multitudinous changes required in the life of a building are costly and, from a cosmetic standpoint, virtually impossible in an exposed concrete wall. Surface-mounted electrical conduits and various unsightly patches spattered about resemble the varicose veins and age spots of not-so-graceful aging. A less obdurate finish material such as, say, plaster, could have economically and gracefully accommodated all these changes, but then plaster wasn't modern enough for the 1960s.

But enough about aesthetics, let's look at function. Due to its current ongoing renovation and expansion, a thorough analysis of the current functional mess that is Dulles would be unfair. So instead, let's just examine the functioning of the Mobile Lounges, which epitomize the bold conceptual rethinking that characterizes this building, and the deficiencies that have resulted from such a design approach. Imagine, if you will, standing in line to enter the Mobile Lounge, then waiting for it to fill, then for the driver to come and lock himself in his cabin, the time for it to lumber across the runway, then dock, then unload, and all the while your watch is ticking towards takeoff, and you'll get a sense of the entire building's nerve-wracking disfunctionality.

The lounges were originally to have cocktails served in them, which would have at least taken some of the sting out of missing your flight. Yet this building was a creation of Modernism's "best and brightest." The highly celebrated Eero Saarinen of Cranbrook and Yale was its chief architect, in collaboration with Charles Eames and Norman Bel Geddes, possibly the greatest two polymath designers of the Modernist age. So, to return to the Mobile Lounges, the problem with these ex nihilo gizmos is the problem with the whole building, and indeed all of Modern architecture. Modernism was an effort to reinvent the wheel, ignoring the fact that the wheel had already been invented, and that all wheels have to be round. After 40 years, this one particular bold leap into the future is having to undergo a lengthy and expensive radical makeover. Revered as a Modernist icon, a sensible proposal to raze Dulles and simply do it right this time would be, I suspect, strictly out of the question.

Yet, as a traveler and taxpayer enduring the many months of massive reworking and rebuilding, I wistfully reflect on New York's Grand Central Terminal, a twice-as-old icon of another kind of architecture, and recall that its recent restoration required not much more than a thorough cleaning and some fresh paint to have it good to go for another century of transmuting travel's tedium into the sublime.  

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