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.
In 2001 and 2005 David Powrie, an architect who had worked for Saarinen on the Athens Airport design, donated to the CCA over 200 drawings, photographs and documents for this project, along with hundreds of additional drawings and documents for other Saarinen buildings, including the United States Embassies in London (1955-60) and Oslo (1955-59), the David S. Ingalls Hockey Rink, Yale University (1956-58), the Deere and Company Administrative Center, Moline, Illinois (1957-63), and the North Christian Church, Columbus, Indiana (1959-64).
Use of the Athens Airport for commercial traffic was discontinued in 2001 upon the opening of Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport. The Saarinen terminal building remains standing.