Friday, September 3, 2010

You Have Arrived--Flight 304

Terminal 4: International Arrivals Building (SOM, 2001)

...While the open-air top levels of the parking garages were extremely desolate, this was where I felt most suspicious taking photographs.

--All JFK photos ©2010, Ryan Witte, unless otherwise noted.
I was all ready with my full disclosure and presentation of my driver's license and anything else. No one noticed me.

In the ground level parking lot of the International Arrivals Building (IAB), though, I heard from behind me, "HEY! HEY! HEY!" Eventually I realized that "Hey" was
my new nickname. It was a security guard sitting in her parked car behind me who wanted to know what I was doing. I explained in as forthcoming a way as I could muster, and she calmed a bit. But she said I should be careful and ask the permission of an officer at every opportunity. We sort of joked about my horrible timing, doing this project only days after someone tried to blow up an SUV in Times Square and escape to Dubai.

The most ironic thing, though, was that the closer I got to the terminals, the less I was being reprimanded. It seemed quite backward, somehow. Inside of them, no one even batted an eyelash that I was taking photos. Certainly it would be near impossible (not to mention silly) to police photography in a place designed for people to bid farewell to loved ones and for groups to embark on exciting journeys to far off places. But I was actually doing my best to avoid having other people in my pictures. Instead I was focused on the structures, which of course is the whole point of this story.

SOM designed both the original IAB in 1957--very possibly the reason First National City Bank hired them two years later--and the new IAB that stands now.

It's a shame that the original IAB had to be lost.

Adding insult to injury, this fuzzy old postcard from 1963, charming though it may be, is one of the only images of the original building that I could find by Googling around. Not even SOM has it on their website.
--Image courtesy Card Cow.
I'm certain it must have been far too small to handle the traffic and had no doubt begun to show its age. But the original building was an exquisitely minimal, delightfully straightforward piece of Modernism, as was all of SOM's work during this period.

--Photo courtesy (and mislabeled by) Electro's Spark.

The 320-foot-high Air Traffic Control Tower, behind the IAB, was completed in 1992 and designed by Henry Cobb of Pei, Cobb, Freed & Partners.

As I said after my first trip to JFK, I would have loved to have seen this building in the hands of Santiago Calatrava, but really it's only fair that SOM should have been asked to redesign their own building. It is a soaring, entirely adept feat of engineering. The sheer size of the main hall is downright breathtaking.

Long slivers of skylight bathe the room in the most flattering natural light.

Happily, one reminder of the old IAB remains: a magnificent Alexander Calder sculpture called .125 (1957).

As I stood watching it for any movement, I did notice it to be turning, though very extremely slowly. I wondered how much it might actually move and figured someone who works there all day long might have some idea. I asked a couple of women at the desk of some Peruvian airline or something. They had no idea. I asked a police officer on duty if he'd noticed it shifting its position from morning to afternoon. He may as well have said, "What sculpture?"

I know people are busy. I know airport employees have more important things to worry about than art. I know when you see something day in and day out you stop noticing it. But I still found it quite a shame that such a fantastic work was being so wholly unappreciated.

Another unfortunate casualty in the evolution of JFK was the demolition of the Tri-Faith Chapels Plaza. The Protestant Chapel was by Edgar Tafel, the Roman Catholic by George J. Sole, and the Synagogue by Walter Hesse, all 1966.

--Photo courtesy Wired New York.
I wouldn't be surprised to learn that in their final years, these buildings stood completely empty for days on end. Their respective architects are also not exactly household names, but they really were beautiful examples of modern religious architecture. Especially wonderful was how the three extended out over the shared reflecting pool.

Four new chapels were built into the IAB: Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and "Multi-Faith" which looked very much Muslim to me. I can't help but wonder what it says that the only two being used (and both by at least three people each) were the Catholic and Muslim chapels. Although the "Our Lady of the Skies" sculpture of the Virgin standing on a propeller is pretty cool, it was the Protestant chapel that I found especially beautiful.

Unfortunately--and strangely, considering the time of day I arrived--the diminutive Tri-Faith Chapels Museum was closed.

Part 4.

©2010, Ryan Witte


Christian Paolino said...

I'm enjoying reading this. I believe part of the reason the original IAB had to go was the layout made security screening, especially as we know it today, increasingly difficult if not impossible.

The original terminal from the curbside resembled a strip mall with one anchor store in the middle. The "wings" (known as East and West Wing Departures) on the curbside were like individual little storefronts occupied by one or several airlines. It made for strange bedfellows among the smaller airline tenants; the second iteration of Pan Am shared space and ticket personnel with Icelandair and Royal Jordanian.

My photo of shared check-in entrance

On the ground level of each was a ticket counter and baggage handoff, then you climbed a flight of stairs (where some airlines had a lounge, others offices, or both) and went through a one-way door that deposited you in a lateral walkway right at the gate area. There was no space to jam the giant scanners and stuff today at each one of those doors, nor anyplace to funnel passengers through a central screening facility.

It was a mode that worked, I guess, for a time considering that many of JFK's over 90 airline tenants have under one frequency a day. However in the new terminal the ticketing area is common space which gives that much more flexibility for tenants with very limited needs.

Ryan Witte said...


Thanks so much for the extra info. Your strip-mall observation may be right on the mark since SOM did do a few shopping malls, including the Short Hills Mall in NJ, which would have been quite stunningly modern when first built.

It's really pretty funny seeing Pan Am wedged in between airlines I could imagine having chickens in the aisle.