PBS: The Origins of Saarinen’s Dulles Design

Maybe you’re traveling during this holiday season, or maybe you’re at home, looking for something interesting to watch as you come down from the gift-giving madness. In either case, I suggest you sit down tomorrow (December 27) at 8 pm and watch The Architect Who Saw the Future on PBS. In this beautiful documentary (with stirring music composed by Moby), Eero Saarinen’s son, Eric Saarinen, chronicles the life and work of his father, who was raised by the equally important Finnish architect, Eliel Saarinen.

Those of us who live in DC or have passed through the area are undoubtedly familiar with Saarinen’s design for Dulles International Airport.

Eero Saarinen with a scale model of Virginia’s Dulles Airport interior. Credit: Courtesy of Library of Congress

I didn’t know this before screening the film, but Saarinen did not live to see the finished product:

Virginia’s Dulles Airport, designed by Eero Saarinen. Credit: Eric Saarinen, ASC / Peter Rosen Productions, Inc.

“In the case of Dulles airport, it’s not really that he didn’t get to see it, because he saw it in a model stage, where he was like a giant looking down,” Eric Saarinen says in the film. I’ve always marveled at this structure as our car approaches it—its swooping, upward arc is the epitome of flight itself.

What I didn’t know before watching the documentary, however, is that the design has roots in New Haven, Connecticut, at Yale University’s Ingalls hockey rink.

Yale University’s Ingalls Rink (New Haven, Conn.), designed by Eero Saarinen. Credit: Eric Saarinen, ASC / Peter Rosen Productions, Inc.

The roof is suspended from a central, concrete spine that flows outward to a pinnacle of pointed lights over the entrance. “It looks like a Norse ship,” architect Robert A.M. Stern comments on the show.

Sketches of Ingalls Rink at Yale University, ca. 1956, designed by Eero Saarinen. Credit: Courtesy of Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University Library

“The Ingalls Rink gave us the courage to do the hanging roof here, with concrete over draped cables,” Saarinen says in an archived recording played on the film, as he explains the Dulles roof structure. “It’s like one huge hammock suspended between concrete trees.” The structural supports rise 40 feet on the field side, and soar up to 65 feet at the entrance.

I was eager to watch this film because of the Dulles connection, but it was also fascinating to see the origins of his creative genius, starting with his apprenticeship under his father at the Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, which led to his taking over his father’s commission to design the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, after Eliel Saarinen died in 1950.

General Motors Technical Center (Warren, Mich.) is one of several National Historic Landmarks designed by Eero Saarinen. Credit: Eric Saarinen, ASC / Peter Rosen Productions, Inc.


General Motors Technical Center (Warren, Mich.) is one of several National Historic Landmarks designed by Eero Saarinen. Credit: Eric Saarinen, ASC / Peter Rosen Productions, Inc.

The documentary is interspersed with commentary by contemporary giants of architecture such as Stern and Cesar Pelli. Finnish actor Peter Franzen also reads from Saarinen’s writings about his architectural philosophy: “Architecture is not just here to give space and shelter, but architecture also has the purpose of making and enhancing man’s time on earth.” That can certainly be said about his signature accomplishment, the St. Louis gateway arch.

Note the Washington Monument among the sketches of great memorials on the wall behind the arch model in this 1958 photo:

Eero Saarinen with model and sketches of St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, ca. 1958. Credit: Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University Library

Saarinen’s also known for the Deere & Co. headquarters in Moline, Illinois: “We tried to get into the building the character of the Deere products. We tried to use steel to express strength.” And did he ever:

Deere & Company World Headquarters (Moline, Ill.), designed by Eero Saarinen. Credit: Eric Saarinen, ASC / Peter Rosen Productions, Inc.

And like he did at Dulles, the stunning TWA Flight Center at New York’s Kennedy International Airport (now being redeveloped into a hotel) was an exercise in using architecture to express the drama and excitement of flight:

New York’s TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport, designed by Eero Saarinen. Credit: Eric Saarinen, ASC / Peter Rosen Productions, Inc.

So let’s now return to Dulles. Part of what made the airport design such a stunning departure from its peers is the absence of “fingers” emanating from the main terminal to accommodate the growing number and size of airplanes. Dulles gave birth to the concept of a “mobile lounge” that would transport travelers to the planes. They would no longer have to traverse long concourses to reach their flight. “His first thought was, ‘How do we solve the passengers walking for miles?’ ” Eric says on the film.

Here’s an excerpt from the film explaining more:

Originally, passengers could actually lounge in there, with music playing and cocktails served. Then the doors would shut and they would be taken straight to the airplane.

The mobile lounge at Dulles Airport in action, 1960s. (Photo: Library of Congress/LC-DIG-krb-00774)

The above photo comes from a great piece on this quickly outmoding form of conveyance, written this summer in Atlas Obscura.

As we all know, of course, these buggies have become yet another step in the seemingly endless trek we all have to take to get to our planes at Dulles. Can they at least bring the cocktails back?

The PBS documentary contains a snippet from a promotional video that none other than the midcentury design greats Charles and Ray Eames produced to promote the new concept. I found the full-length version here. The animation is pure 60s fabulous:

“The mobile lounge will perhaps be best known for its convenience and its feel of luxury,” the Father-Knows-Best-like narrator intones on the promotional film.

Luxury. Not a word I’ve ever equated with those things in all the decades I’ve endured them.

But I digress.

This PBS documentary (part of the American Masters series) is a stunning tour through Saarinen’s work, from Dulles to Kennedy airports; from his designs for a hockey rink and dormitories at Yale to an auditorium at M.I.T.; from a tractor headquarters in Illinois to a breathtaking little church in Indiana.

Those images will be present in my mind the next time I approach that soaring roofline in Virginia.


  1. You’re welcome, Jennifer! And I do hope you follow along…I always love to have new readers. I’ll be following along with you also! Happy New Year!

  2. Jennifer Sergent says:

    Thank you so much for your nice comment, Vanessa, and for introducing me to your blog — I will definitely be following you!

  3. I actually saw the PBS special. As someone who studied architecture, I can say that it was definitely worth seeing and I’m glad I didn’t miss it. His son did a fine job putting together this documentary with a nice insight on his personal and professional life which was so intriguing. Unfortunately, he died so young while several of his architectural masterpieces were under construction. What a wonderful post.