Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Fly Like an Eagle

A very good friend of mine happens to be a virtual encyclopedia of the history of air travel.  Last week, she and I went on a bit of a field trip.

Our first stop was the Pan Am (MetLife) Building by Walter Gropius with Pietro Belluschi, completed in 1963.
--Photo courtesy Postdlf.

I was really surprised to realize that I had never seen the inside of this building.  One of the most immediately iconic fixtures of the NYC skyline, by one of the absolute godfathers of Modernist architecture, a member of one of the greatest artists' communes of the 20th Century, the Bauhaus, and a controversial and an entirely problematic project from start to finish.

One thing I noticed going to the foot of it, as sleek and glassy as it might appear from afar, it's deeply textured up close.  You almost don't see the glass from the foot of it.

The reasons I wanted to go were that first of all, Belluschi designed both the Juilliard building and the Laguardia School (they're going to live forever), and also because the lobby at one point included a sculpture first titled The World, later changed to Flight, by Richard Lippold, who's responsible for the sculptures of Orpheus & Apollo that hang in the front of Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  
--Richard Lippold, Flight (1962); photo courtesy this site.

Lippold, by the way, was a good friend of John Cage.  They were neighbors in the Village.  Lippold had an old hearse he used to transport his sculptures around, and he would give Cage rides in it.  Cage dedicated some important compositions to him.

We met up right under the clock in the center of the great hall of Warren & Wetmore's Grand Central Station, which is indubitably one of the most majestic spaces in all of New York.

Well, all I can say is, the lobby areas of Gropius' building had all kinds of 1960s fabulousness when the building was built, and I don't know when they were renovated or by whom, but they couldn't possibly be any more bland and boring now.  It's extremely disturbing, in fact.  They have some enormous paintings by Julian Schnabel that are mildly interesting, though I'm not sure how I feel about him, anyway.  Other than that, it looks like a bunch of stupid, artless, mind-numbingly boring investment bankers with not the slightest bit of creativity in their number-rattled little brains got hold of a building by an architectural genius and had their miserable, perverted way with it.

Next we went out to JFK Airport.  I loved the whole idea of this excursion because I don't think anyone really ever just goes to JFK to look at the airport.  But we did.  The other thing is, this is the first time I've ever taken the train to the airport.  The last time I made an international trip, the Air Train didn't even exist.  The only way we knew to get to JFK was by cab.  I'm actually really surprised it took them so long to build the stupid thing.  I will say that the ride is a lot faster and hassle-free than I ever would have expected; I think we took the E train, and it was probably not much more than a half-hour to get there.

But I have problems with it.  The trip to and fro is so UGLY.  I mean, the Air Train is new and very smooth, but it's extremely utilitarian, and it will age very badly.  They made absolutely NO effort to make this entrance into the greatest American city GRAND in any way.  I think it's unforgivable.  I really think NYC should roll out the red carpet, and they have done just the opposite.

On the ride out, I did get a great view of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill's still incredibly stunning First National City Bank (1959).  Not even the SOM website has images of this building, which is a shame because it's really beautiful.

--Photo courtesy Airliners.net.
The first major building we saw was the Pan American Terminal (1960) by Tibbets, Abbett, McCarthy, Stratton.  It's really stunning.  The canopy saucer was originally broad enough to provide cover for boarding planes by stair, and was intended to have parking on the roof.
--Photo courtesy Suleyman Yusuf.
This proved impossible, no doubt for unsurprising structural reasons. [Edit: I received a nice email from a reader who provided a much better explanation. The rooftop parking did exist on the 1973 extension building for this terminal. In fact, in the Google Maps view, you can see the vehicular ramps leading up to it. It was later closed for security reasons. It's possible that rooftop parking had been suggested also for the saucer, but I suspect not.]

It was also brought to my attention that the original American Airlines Terminal (1960) had a gorgeous mosaic by Hector Bernab├│ all across the front of it (which I'm fairly certain I remember), which has been disgracefully just ripped out with no concern whatsoever.

--Photo Yang Shen
Our most important destination was Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal (1963).  My friend had heard that Jet Blue had finished it and that it was open.  Their terminal is open, but they haven't finished the TWA terminal yet, unfortunately.  It's unbelievably gorgeous, and wonderful to see in person, and the good news is that with all the new circulation routes, there are all these new ways to see the building from vantages that were never possible before.

It really does need help, though.  The two side wings, which by the way, very much look like airplane wings in the most awesome way, have stalactites hanging off them, likely from the eroded concrete.  We were talking about how for a very short time, it was being used as an art gallery.  I thought that was such a beautiful idea, but my friend said people completely abused the honor of being inside this masterpiece, did their best to wreck the building, and even busted through locked doors and started running around out on the tarmac.  I think it's a disgrace, to be honest.

--Image courtesy Naked Airport.
Then we went over to I. M. Pei's National Airlines Terminal (1971), now also run by Jet Blue.  Evidently, it caused a complete revolution in airport architecture, being the first terminal to present sheer walls of glass under a large span of interior space.  The building is a complete wreck.  I almost asked for a ladder to start cleaning the windows myself.  They are so disgusting and brown from decades of cigarette smoke and airplane fumes, you can practically smell it.  We were hoping that after completing their giant new terminal and renovating Saarinen's, they'd close Pei's and give it a complete overhaul.  They really have to.

--Photo courtesy SOM.
SOM also did the new International Arrivals Building, which is very nice, if not iconic in the slightest.  I have the utmost respect for SOM, but this building in the hands of Santiago Calatrava would have been a breathtaking masterpiece.

--Photo courtesy Daylife.
Then there's the British Overseas Airways Terminal (1970) by Gollins, Melvin, Ward & Partners, now British Airways.  This was the one I think I appreciated most, for the reason that I'd never noticed it before, but it really is beautiful.  Like a truncated pyramid flipped upside-down, it has a gorgeous geometric monumentality to it, and it reaches for the skies, like an airline terminal should.  Granted, it looks a little bit grimy after all these years, but its sharp lines are holding up remarkably well.  It just needs someone to give it a hug with some cleanser and some rags.

But really, you need to see the unbelievably stunning landscape architecture that graced this portal into the United States of the 1970s, with pinnacles of monumental architectural perfection like glimmering jewels on an expanse of suburban land.  It was so heavenly in its conception, so majestic an introduction to the City of New York.

Now?  Pathetic.  It's a complete disaster.  The skyline of the airport is like a garbage dump for forgotten architectural tours de force and artless engineering feats of practicality.  The colossal hangars, which are per se utterly impressive, look bland and utilitarian and ugly.  It's a vast wasteland of structures, disconnected, uncelebrated, dilapidated, unappreciated, and unworthy.

The biggest tragedy of JFK Airport is that, to make it what it should be, what it was always intended to be: a monumental, aesthetically stunning port of entry, would require literally billions and billions of dollars to repair and the vision of a Michaelangelo, Palladio, Lutyens, Wright, or Corbusier.  There's only one person who could accomplish something like that financially: the utterly psychotic Robert Moses.  There will never be another Moses, and heaven help us if there ever is.  He very nearly destroyed this city with his auto-centric insanity.  But in the absence of him, or the possibility for someone like him to ever exist again, JFK rots in pathetic indecision and aesthetic anarchy.  It surely will continue to, until such time as New York becomes a port of interstellar travel or something of that import, I fear.

©2008, Ryan Witte

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