May 18, 2017.   Saving Saarinen.

Construction continues on Eero Saarinen’s famous TWA terminal at Kennedy airport, which is being turned into a hotel. This is maybe not the ideal fate for such a historic building, but it beats the alternative. (Demolition, that is. I.M. Pei’s National Airlines “Sundrome,” which used to sit right next door, was knocked down about five years ago).

Saarinen’s “Flight Center,” as it was called, is the most architecturally significant air terminal ever built, and is one of aviation’s hallowed places. Regarded as a modernist masterpiece, it opened in 1962 (at the time JFK was still known as Idlewild Airport), and was the first major terminal built expressly for jet airliners. 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. The initial 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 half circle. Terminal 5 is one of America’s ugliest, and it could have used the architectural panache. This plan fell through, however, and the terminal sat in a state of semi-dereliction until hotelier Andre Balaz stepped in, with plans to turn the building into a lobby for a 150-room boutique hotel.

We’re 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. 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’s not geometrically partitioned in the manner of most public buildings is precisely what makes it so brilliant. “All one thing,” is how 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; 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.

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.

Photos by the author.

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