Does the name Eero Saarinen rings any bells? Maybe not, right? Well he should (at least to us and by us I mean the greeks born before 1990).
What if I’d tell you that this man was the link between New York, Indiana, Virginia, St.Louis and…. Athens?
Saarinen was a Finish American architect and industrial designer, famous for his Neofuturistic style: simple, sweeping, arching structural curves and machine-like rationalism. Moreover, he was a close collaborator of Charles Eames.
Some of his MOST FAMOUS works? New York: CBS building, 1965. Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts Library and Museum, 1965. TWA Terminal, 1962. Columbus, Indiana: North Christian Church, 1964. Vigninia: Dulles International Airport, 1963…. and finally the most famous Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, 1965.
The Dulles airport in Virginia.
The Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
So this is the impressive CV of the architect who was commissioned to design the first airport of Athens (which is abandoned since 2001, when the mega-prefabricated box of Eleftherios Venizelos airport opened).
Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) began the design for Athens Airport (1960-69) after his more famous airport terminal buildings for TWA in New York (1956-62) and Dulles in Chantilly, Virginia (1958-63) were already underway. Instead of the soaring, curvilinear forms of these works, Saarinen opted for a more restrained design at Athens.
These preliminary sketches show how the columnar rhythm and load-bearing, post and lintel construction of Greek temple architecture served as an initial inspiration.
In a letter to Solon Ghikas, the Greek Minister of Communications and Public Works and the project’s client, Saarinen admitted that the airport design was “a bit influenced by the beautiful monasteries of Athos.” He probably had in mind the way in which the Mount Athos Monastery buildings descend their steeply sloping site and present their principal façades to the sea. The Athens Airport site sloped gently toward the airfield and Saarinen used this condition to provide entrance at the second floor level, giving users the choice of mounting to the mezzanine level or descending to the departures and arrivals floor below. And Saarinen insisted that the principal façade should face the airfield, welcoming passengers to Greece. Saarinen sought to further link the airport to its location through the planned use of local Pentellic marble (the white stone of the Parthenon) as part of the concrete aggregate used for construction and for the desks and floors on the interior.
These sources of inspiration become subsumed in a final design of structural logic, clarity and elegance. The airport comprises two stacked volumes, the lower one serving as the arrivals and departures level, while the upper volume, cantilevered twenty-two feet on three sides, housed restaurants, offices and a mezzanine level providing dramatic views of take-offs and landings. The Parthenon’s columns here become cruciform beams, containing air conditioning ducts whose capitals are transformed into splayed fingers that provide further support for the upper level.
The building was laid out as follows: (a) at the entrance level were the check-in booths, customs inspection, shops and a balcony with restaurants that was also open to the transit lounge, (c) the mezzanine housed the foreign exchange services, customs offices, etc, on the runway level was the splendid transit lounge, with an internal height of three floors, and the departure gates and (d) in the basement were the luggage handling facilities, and the airport’s operating services. The large projecting upper floors included restaurants and the roof overlooked the runways and the Saronic Gulf and was popular among passengers and visitors alike. On an intervening floor was the VIP lounge, administration offices, etc.
The dynamic and plastic form of the building was particularly elegant. It was built of pre-stressed, bare concrete permitting the creation of large openings and projections. The façade overlooking the airport is divided into five parts, supported on large piers and crowned with two parallel projections. The projections provide shade to the extensive glass surfaces.
Now that the Hellenikon airport has been abandoned (in 2001, after the opening of the new Eleftherios Venizelos airport at Spata), provision has been made for Saarinen’s heritage building to be utilised by acquiring a new, cultural function.
Sources: Wikipedia, Pinterest, Yatzer, CCA Canadian Center of Architecture, tee.gr
Photos: A. Lambrovassilis, the CCA archive