November 17: “We believe in the past and in the future”

2016/11/17 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1962 Pres. John F. Kennedy dedicated Dulles International Airport in Washington DC.

The airport was designed by Eero Saarinen (1910-61), son of Finnish immigrant Eliel and architect of several buildings that are, individually, shorthand accounts of that just-after-mid-century soft, curvy, latter-day Expressionist Modernism: an architecture of a future view (always, certainly, an idea of what the future might hold from the present perspective, not the future itself) that embraces traditional concerns for uplifting the human spirit through the manipulation of shapes, definition of space and channeling of light.    His buildings are still undeniably modernist, revealing his interest in industrial materials, abstracted forms, and monumental scale, but ignoring the ninety-degree world of Mies and the coldness of Corb.  Saarinen’s buildings are engaging and inspiring: the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, TWA Terminal at JFK and–the best one–the Kresge Chapel. (He accomplished similar goals at a much smaller scale, the cool chairs that he looked cool in).  The heroic structural gymnastics of Dulles, whose swooping roof rests on 161′ cables stretched between pairs of tall, leaning concrete stanchions marching down the building’s 600′ length, is both a bold expression of modern structure and also an uplifting expression of flight.  It almost reminds us that going to the airport used to be a fun and exciting thing.

Pres. Kennedy was eager to emphasize the modernity of the building as an expression of the time; indeed, just about a month before Dulles opened, he gave that famous “to the moon” speech.  But he contextualized his remarks within traditions that were likewise meaningful.  (Maybe this was more of the good influence of Mrs. Kennedy‘s work on behalf of the nascent preservation movement.)  The President presented the view that both  points of view mattered:

This building, I think, symbolizes the aspirations of the United States in the 1950s and the 1960s, and I don’t think it’s at all incongruous that we should be at the same time devoting ourselves to the preserving of Lafayette Park and all of the old buildings of that park, and all of the old views which other Presidents a hundred years ago saw, and at the same time taking the greatest pride and satisfaction in this new building. . . .  We believe in the past and in the future, and I think this building symbolizes that great future, as Lafayette Park symbolizes that brilliant past. . . 

Kennedy concluded by saying that places like airports, where newcomers make their first impressions of the United States, should show the “best face” of America , one that valued the lessons of the past and strove for future achievements.  Like the building he was standing in, Kennedy’s remarks illustrate the wisdom of paying attention to both sides of the timeline separated by the dot of the present.

Read the whole speech here!

Image: the airport (from this source)


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You are currently reading November 17: “We believe in the past and in the future” at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.


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