Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
As this 1958 Charles and Ray Eames film shows, Dulles was truly designed for modern air travel.
Welcome to the latest installation of “Public Access,” where CityLab shares its favorite videos—old and new, serious and nutty—that tell a story about place.
Unlike Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center in New York’s JFK Airport, whose seductive shape was functionally obsolete from its opening in 1962, Washington Dulles remains a delight for the modern traveler as much as the photographer or architecture historian.
Saarinen’s Dulles was truly designed for the Jet Age. As seen in the Eames Office’s 1958 film The Expanding Airport: A study of service and convenience for Washington International, Dulles, which also opened in 1962, would prioritize comfort.
Created by the married industrial design duo of Charles and Ray Eames, who collaborated with Saarinen and the rest of the Dulles design team, The Expanding Airport uses cartoony hand-drawn animation to convey the stresses that mid-1950s passengers faced as the scale of new airports expanded. “Walks, which were once filled with romantic anticipation of adventures, will become more and more irritating as the high-speed flights come into service,” the narrator warns. But then here comes then-named Washington International to usher in a new, more enlightened era of airport design.
The film emphasizes the importance of minimizing the various stairs, doors, wind blasts, and odors one faces from check-in to boarding. The most exciting solution is the design team’s mobile “Departure Lounges”—the bus-like vehicles that ferry passengers from terminal to aircraft that remain one of the most memorable elements of flying out of Dulles to this day.
“In the lounge,” says the narrator, “the passenger has started his trip and can be ferried to however it is convenient from an operation standpoint. The mobile lounge will be best known for its convenience and luxury. But a very substantial part of its value will come from the freedom and flexibility it gives to airport planning.”
At the end of the film, one of these departure lounges heads towards a futuristic tarmac bristling with rocketships. “In the evolution of these operations,” the narrator adds, “there is a high probability that something like the mobile lounge will be servicing quite a few of the conveyances that are yet to come along.”
That hasn’t quite happened yet, but Dulles still works for the modern world of commercial air travel. Washingtonians are still waiting on the Silver Line extension to take them there more easily though.