Airport!

The new Dallas-Fort Worth Airport—World's Largest!—opened this fall amid pomp and circumstances appropriate to the Great Pyramid. And only Dallas-Fort Worth could have brought it off.

TEXAS HAS SEEN NOTHING LIKE the official opening of the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport (DFW) last September since President Woodrow Wilson inaugurated the Houston Ship Channel in 1914. Forty-thousand gold-lettered invitations went out to diplomats, businessmen, and socialites all over the world. The Concorde, the Anglo-French supersonic transport plane, made its first American appearance. Eight thousand people attended a black-tie gala in one of the new terminals. There were bands, an air show, speeches, and general high spirits despite a few monumental foul-ups.

Dallas-Fort Worth boosters are convinced that the airport will mean as much, if not more, to their region as the ship channel has meant to Houston. They compare 20th-century Dallas to 19th-century Chicago. As the 19th century moved by rail, so the railroads meeting in Chicago made it a world center. The 20th and—who knows?—the 21st centuries are going to move by air. Air routes meeting in Dallas-Fort Worth should, the reasoning goes, make that area a world center in its turn.

Asked at a press conference whether NASA was considering using it as a spaceport, airport executive director Tom Sullivan smiled, but nobody laughed.

ANTI-DALLAS SORTS MIGHT HOPE THAT the new airport is not phenomenal, mind-boggling, futuristic, and the best in the world. Too bad. It is. They might then grumble that even if the airport is all that great, then to take such obvious pride in it is in poor taste: it is just an airport, after all, a place where airplanes land, pick up and discharge passengers and cargo, and take off again. Isn't getting excited about an airport really in the same class of emotion as getting excited about a new bus terminal?

On the contrary, however, a lot of people with both good taste and good sense are excited about this airport. Considering how overcrowded, noisy, and cramped just about every major airport in the world is these days, DFW is a real step forward. It may be the last great airport built in the United States for the next decade or two; there is none other even on the drawing boards. If all goes well, DFW will have the future all to itself. It is the biggest, the best-planned, the most flexible, and, by default, the most environmentally conscious airport in the world (although the new Montreal airport will steal the environmental laurels when it opens in 1975). The Air Line Pilots Association says it's the best. It is also an encouraging symbol of cooperation between two cities whose rivalry had lasted too long and been too divisive.

The opening was not without its problems, and the airport is not going to be without its problems, either. A number of the press from around the world became jaded by the incessant buoyancy of the airport boosters; somehow it fulfills too many stereotypes to hear Dallas talking about the biggest, the most advanced, the fastest, the best-planned, the most flexible, the greatest number, the best….The airport officials also consistently, if subtly, refused to deal head-on with the real problems confronting the airport, such as: delays in opening (planned for October, the airport won't really open until January); the threat of Southwest Airlines keeping its commuter traffic at Love field and therefore siphoning off much of DPW's potential high-frequency, high-density traffic; the fragility of the airport's financing; and the potential difficulty in making the airport's multi-gate design conform to federal anti-hijack security regulations.

The opening ceremonies themselves set the tone for the airport and its future. Planned to show off the highlights, they ended up showing some of the drawbacks as well. The whole event was truly a Texas occasion; one national magazine sent a writer down specifically to do a story on the "scene" at the airport opening. And scene there was….

FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT seen DFW, it is most easily visualized as a shish kebab. I confess I did not hit upon this metaphor until I was eating dinner on the fourth and last night of the opening, but I had known all along that its half-moon concrete terminals, pierced up the middle by the airport's spine road, echoed some familiar shape. It's true; the existing terminals, and the ones to follow as the airport grows, are impaled on the spinal road like Brobdingnagian tomatoes and onions on a giant skewer. Like the shish kebab, the airport is adaptable, modular, flexible. The same basic principle can accommodate any size appetite, whether for food or planes. The advantages of Central Asian nomadic cookery are thus incorporated by North American technology. The result: convenience, simplicity, and easy access to component parts.

On the other hand, like the shish kebab, the airport offers few surprises, no romance, and little opportunity for variety. These qualities have led architecture critics to call it "blandly repetitious," and to compare encountering it to seeing Manhattan Island (which is about its size) filled end to end with the same building repeated over and over.

Gyo Obata, the terminal's principal architect, not surprisingly has little patience with such criticism. "The humanizing thing about airports is not that they are pretty but that they are easy to use—to hell with monuments!"

While he appeared not completely comfortable amid the hoopla surrounding the opening, the forcefully pragmatic Obata typified the planning approach to the airport. There is a pervasive "can-do" spirit about the place, a sort of assumed confidence that nothing has to be as it once was, that technology and organization can solve any problem. The whole affair is like having the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders rooting for the Los Alamos nuclear development labboratory.

This approach, of making things easy to use, comfortable, and accessible, begins before I even arrive at the airport. The press bus is like no bus I have ever seen. Its old bench seats have been ripped out and swivel arm chairs put in; its oily floors are covered in royal-blue, deep-pile carpet; Muzak, a Sony color TV, a telephone, a complete bar, all have been added.

Tags: THE CULTURE

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