Tuesday, 22 June 2010

TWA Terminal -Eero Saarinen, 1962

DCF 1.0 Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal, now sadly abandoned while awaiting its relaunch.

Talking of curves, as a commenter was a few weeks back, inspired me to think about all the post-war enthusiasm for all those gorgeously expressive buildings using the potential of concrete shell, including Eero Saarinen's beautifully expressionistic 1962 TWA Terminal--designed to express the new age of jet travel back when that age was in its very infancy, and and which has been long outgrown by developments since.

The sculpted, naturally-lit spaces seemed to perfectly express the spirit of the new age of the post-war travel explosion.  As architect Stephanie Stubbs said about the building when renovations began being planned a few years back:

_Quote Saarinen's TWA Terminal—the great, swooping concrete bird—captured the essence of flight poised on the threshold of the Jet Age. It is fitting that all efforts be made to preserve its beauty for us, and for future generations. However, it is apparent that the building just cannot function as an airline terminal anymore.
The proposals shown here with the original terminal building at its centre give just a small idea of how much jet travel has changed in forty-odd years, and how flexible and easily-altered the modern airline building needs to be.
And just see what else has changed, based on present requirements:
_Quote...the Port Authority [the present owner] does not feel the whole building can be a modern terminal with "no room for curbside check-in, no way to move baggage efficiently through the building and no place to put security equipment like bulky explosive-detecting devices...the gently arched tubular bridges do not meet modern requirements for people with disabilities." But PA does say it could become an airport centerpiece, pending the future AirTrain system, as well as a place for the airport's employees.

Sadly, it seems that Saarinen's terminal managed to express and to fit the new age of jet travel so well that when jet travel moved onwards and upwards, as it has done every decade since, changing the way we see the world in the process, that the building itself could not easily be changed to fit the new era—or, at least, the owners of the building would not hire those who could make it so.

It takes a little more thought to expand a terminal like this one than it does the ever-expanding super-boxes so favoured these days, but the process can be far more rewarding all round.

However, even by the early seventies Saarinen’s bird was starting to find its feathers a little frayed. As bureaucracy took over the traveller and long delays at airports weighed down the spirits of every would-be passenger, surveys were already suggesting that Saarinen's beautifully soaring terminal was often cited as the one causing frequent flyers the most dissatisfaction. The reason? Apparently, the building itself gave the expectant traveller such a magnificent feeling of being up-up-and-away that all the hassles and problems associated with modern jet travel – the paperwork, the bureaucracy, the delays—that that the contrast proved too much for too many, and too frustrating for most.

A true story, I swear. Just another way bureaucracy kills off excitement.

LINKS: Saarinen's TWA Terminal and the moment of truth
- AIArchitect (Sept, 2001)
Saarinen's beloved TWA Terminal and air travel for the future: can this marriage be saved?
AIArchitect (Sept, 2001)
Saarinen's TWA Terminal to reopen?
- The Gothamist (Oct, 2003)

3d Visuals
- JonSeagull.Com

twa2-713270Just the sort of space you’d expect to find Emma Peel & John Steed lurking. Or James Bond on his way from Key Biscayne (Live and Let Die depicts James Bond arriving at JFK on a Pan Am 747—just one film defining an era that leaned on the terminal’s good looks.)



  1. Beatiful building.... But I suppose it highlights another challenge with 'curves' - aside from the cost. You're committing yourself to a very specific function that can't easily be adapted to changing circumstances.

  2. interesting.. 'sort of' reminds me of an old building from the same era in Cambridge (yes, NZ) that is on the by-pass to Te Awamutu and another one in Putaruru that may have been the Post Office. This terminal is similar but on steroids... cool though. You got to love concrete as a Building material, flexible but permanent.
    Thank you.

  3. If architecture was an orgasm - it would be this building!

    What a masterpiece (in a contemporary kind of way of course)

  4. Let it be clear here PC, the USA has one of the most socialist attitudes to airports in the Western world, with almost all of them run by local government type entities driven by political imperatives. They do not compete as they should and they do next to nothing for retail or anything else to encourage people to spend time there.

    Sell the airport and I may suggest it could be quite different, especially if JFK competed with a private La Guardia and Newark!


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