Saturday, September 11, 2010

You Have Arrived--Flight 405

Terminal 5: Trans World Airlines Flight Center (Eero Saarinen, 1962)The undisputed jewel of JFK Airport.

--All JFK photos ©2010, Ryan Witte, unless otherwise noted.
In my humble opinion, this is probably one of the top five greatest buildings in the whole city of New York, and possibly the most beautiful airline terminal ever built. For sure there are contenders for the title, Sir Norman Foster's Terminal 3 at Beijing Airport (2008), for one. As if we needed more proof of his genius, there's also Saarinen's own Dulles International Airport (1962).

--Photo courtesy About.

Just like the Worldport, the TWA Flight Center was practically functionally obsolete right after it was completed. By the end of the decade, the Boeing 747s were put into service. The Jumbo Jets were too large for either terminal to handle and here necessitated the installation of tubes and hubs extending out from the main structure. I also wouldn't argue with someone bringing into this discussion the Pan Am Building bathing Grand Central Station in its monumental shadow. Nonetheless, I can think of no building that expresses the glory of the Jet Age better than this one.

The entire sculptural expressionist form of T5 seems to suggest not only flight specifically, but constant motion more generally.

I'm ashamed to admit that I still have never actually been inside it. For as long as jetBlue has been fussing around, they have yet to finish whatever it is they're doing with it. Not only is it still not open, but sadly, you can't even walk up to it.

No matter what they do with the interior, I would gain immense respect for jetBLue if they were to accurately and sensitively restore, at the very least, the Saarinen-designed Ambassador Club to its original 1960s glory.

The good news is that the exterior looks in far better shape than the first trip I made to see it. But at its worst--as Saarinen said on his final visit shortly before his death--this building would even make a beautiful ruin; it's absolutely stunning.

I'll be the first to agree that the above-ground parking garages and AirTrain stations have caused needless blight on the already jumbled vistas of JFK. However, I must say they haven't disrupted my enjoyment of Saarinen's masterpiece quite as much as some of the other terminals.

In some ways, I appreciate how the elevated walkways allow for views of T5 that were never possible before.

Part 5.
©2010, Ryan Witte


Christian Paolino said...

My first airline flight was out of this building in 1981. We had dinner in the wonderful restaurant on the second floor... it was all so elegant in those days! I continued to visit the bar with its great views until, in the aftermath of their Flight 800 loss, TWA moved the security screening to right inside the front door and wouldn't allow anybody without a ticket inside.

I hope that -- whatever use is found for the terminal -- they will allow non-passengers to visit.

Ryan Witte said...


I'm sure I'm one of only a few people who feels this way, but if jetBlue were to make it into not much more than a group of nice restaurants, cafes, and stores--a glorified food court, speaking of malls--I would be relatively pleased. It would mean, first of all, that, like you said, non-passengers could enjoy it. It would also give them ample opportunities to restore a great deal of it to its original glory. The way airline travel is today, I think much more damage would be done trying to force it to accommodate the practicalities of passengers and security.

bob previdi said...

When I was a kid I use to love climbing the stairs and running across the walkways. I've been in Terminal 1 and 4 lately, but I'm looking forward to the day when I can take my kids through there as well. Yes, it is a great building and I was glad to see that one saved. JFK has always been an embarassment, but I must say, what PANYNJ has done with the Airtrain and the terminals works. JFK is really feeling like a world class airport, and saving TWA was the best of the past.