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Out with the Old, in with the New at JFK


Over at Kennedy Airport, rumors say that Eero Saarinen’s famous TWA “Flight Center” is about to become part of a hotel.

Regarded as a modernist masterpiece, the Flight Center opened in 1962 and was the first major terminal built expressly for jet airliners. It is arguably the most architecturally significant airport terminal ever constructed.

After the takeover of TWA by American Airlines, the structure’s fate was arbitrated between preservationists and Port Authority bureaucrats. As those things tend to go, few were optimistic, but the building was saved from demolition thanks mainly to the efforts of New York City’s Municipal Arts Society. (I was lucky enough to work in Saarinen’s terminal when I was a pilot for TWA Express in the mid-1990s, though by then it was overcrowded and forlorn. Clutches of sparrows lived in the yellowed rafters and would swoop around grabbing up crumbs.)

One plan was for the terminal to serve as a lobby and ticketing plaza for JetBlue, whose terminal 5 sits directly behind it, enveloping Saarinen’s structure in a semi-circle. Terminal 5 has all the charm of a shopping mall food court and could have used the architectural panache. This plan fell through, however, and the terminal continues to sit in state of semi-dereliction, despite some $20 million already spent in renovations.

Now, the Port Authority is reportedly close to approving a deal with hotelier Andre Balaz, who intends to turn the building into a lobby for a proposed 150-room boutique hotel.

I’m happy the building still stands, but this hotel idea strikes me as an aesthetically dangerous one. “It is a great honor to be entrusted with the preservation and revitalization of this masterpiece,” said Balaz, but here’s hoping he understands what makes the building special, and keeps it that way.

The terminal’s beauty is, if nothing else, its continuity. That it is not geometrically partitioned in the manner of most public buildings is precisely what makes it so brilliant. “All one thing,” is how Eero Saarinen, a Finn whose other projects included the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the terminal at Washington-Dulles, once said of it. “The lobby is a fluid, unified sculpture of a space, at once futuristic and organic,” is how I describe it in my book. “It’s a kind of Gaudi inversion — a carved-out atrium reminiscent of the caves of Turkish Cappadocia, overhung by a pair of cantilevered ceilings that rise from a central spine like huge wings.”

One way or another JFK needs to keep Saarinen standing, having lost the rest of its architectural uniqueness in recent years. I.M. Pei’s National Airlines “Sundrome” is gone. The world’s largest stained glass window was torn down along with the old American Airlines terminal. And the Pan Am Worldport, a.k.a Terminal 3, is being demolished as we speak.

Let’s not be sentimentally foolish. Not every iconic airport building deserves to stay standing forever — Terminal 3 for example, was overdue for the wrecking ball — but couldn’t we put a little effort and imagination into their replacements? The “new” JFK is a mixed aesthetic bag, but even at its best — American’s terminal 8 — it has lost most of its character.

Worst of the new terminals is without a doubt JetBlue’s aforementioned, wildly overrated Terminal 5. Let’s dip back into my book

“‘T5’ as the carrier likes to call it — is a $743 million, 72-acre structure that opened in 2008 to considerable promotion and fanfare. Inside, the fast-food outlets and shops conspire to make yet another airport look and feel like yet another mall. The Wi-Fi is free, and so is the noise from the overcrowded gates and incessant public address announcements.

“But it’s T5’s exterior that’s the real tragedy. Although the street-side facade is at worst cheerless, the tarmac-side is truly abominable — a wide, low-slung, industrial-brutalist expanse of concrete. Once again it looks like a shopping mall. To be more specific, it looks like the back of a shopping mall. All that’s missing are some pallets and dumpsters. The facility’s only visual statement is one of not caring, a presentation of architectural nothingness, absolutely empty of inspiration — precisely what an airport terminal should not be. Is this the best we can do?”

T5 sits directly between Saarinen and the spot where Pei’s Sundrome stood. There’s something troublingly ironic about that.

And lastly, a nod to JFK’s control tower. In fact the tower is probably the airport’s most stylish structure. Designed by Henry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (there’s Pei again), the tower opened in 1992 and for a while was the world’s tallest. (Bangkok now holds that distinction, though Kennedy’s tower, if shorter, is far more interesting-looking than the one at Suvarnabhumi.)

Here’s a photo of it, resplendent in the late afternoon sun, taken with my iPhone from the new Terminal 4 extension. (Yes I’ve Photoshopped it a little. I like that postcard-y, Technicolor effect.) At night, spotlights illuminate the tower in alternating colors, similar to the spire lighting of the Empire State Building.

The wing, jutting in from the right, belongs to a Pakistan International 777.

And, just an observation…

Is there a jet bridge anywhere in the world that doesn’t say “HSBC” on it? How did this company come to display its colors on virtually every jetway on earth?

HSBC, currently the largest bank in the world measured by assets, is a British bank originally founded in Shanghai and Hong Kong. The letters stand for “Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.”

There’s also a tie-in with the Swire Group, which owns most of Cathay Pacific Airways, the airline of Hong Kong. Notice HSBC’s red-and-white, double-triangle logo. The Swire Group’s logo is almost the same. At the back of every Cathay Pacific jet, in small typeface near the plane’s registrations, it says, “The Swire Group,” and this logo appears also.

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot and host of www.askthepilot.com. His new book is COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel. Questions, Answers and Reflections

Comments are Closed.
HawaiiFlyerDC8 September 22, 2013

Yes, that TWA bldg. was lovely, and so were the other interesting bldgs. of that time at JFK.