Wednesday, September 15, 2010

You Have Arrived--Flight 506

Terminal 6: The Sundrome (Pei, Cobb, Freed & Partners, 1971)

Sundrome is another fairly cool name for a terminal, although I'll admit I don't know exactly what it means. It was a project begun by the Port Authority in 1959 to house a number of different airlines. When it was finally completed over a decade later, it became the home of National Airlines. The latest tenant, of course, was jetBlue, but they've since abandoned the Sundrome for T5.

--All JFK photos ©2010, Ryan Witte, unless otherwise noted.
The building was the result of a competition. Wallace Harrison was on the jury, as was Pietro Belluschi, who coincidentally assisted Gropius on the Pan Am Building. Another of the competition entries was by Philip Johnson, the drawings for which I would love to see, if I knew where or how to find them. The winning entry ultimately came from the office of I. M. Pei. Luckily, his John Hancock Tower hadn't started raining broken glass onto the streets of Boston, or Pei might have been more cautious in his use of glass. For the Sundrome, he employed the first use in America of glass mullions between the windows. They give the building brilliant structural and visual clarity. It was evidently a huge influence on airport architecture all over the world.

As Pei explained, since there are no metal mullions, it's very clear that it's the columns supporting the building. There's also nothing to disrupt the total transparency of the facade. The Sundrome's vaguely classical sensibility finds intriguing counterpoint in entirely modern materials and construction methods.

On my first trip out, I had the displeasure of seeing the inside of this building in a shameful state of decrepitude. The thing that struck me most was the sickly color of the windows, which I attributed to decades of cigarette smoke. It was later pointed out to me that the sunlight would stream so blindingly through the windows in the afternoon hours that employees were forced to wear sunglasses. The windows had to be tinted. I think the point remains, however, that if my first guess was a coat of tobacco tar, there's something very wrong there.

We've recently learned that the Port Authority has authorized this building's demolition. I, for one, am appalled. It's a stunningly sleek structure by one of our greatest and most celebrated architects. Something must be done to save this building. I myself wrote a heartfelt op-ed piece that I sent to the New York Times, riding the tail of controversy over NYU's interventions at Pei's Silver Towers. They chose to ignore it.

--Photo courtesy E-Architect.
I think it would be a great travesty if it were allowed to be destroyed. The friend of mine with whom I visited JFK the first time and who knows the airport quite well remarked also that due to its size and layout, it would lend itself far better to expansion than some of the other terminals that are not at risk.

The Port Authority wants to tear this down. NYU wants to mess with the Silver Towers site. The Third Church of Christ, Scientist in DC fought long and hard to be rid of their Pei. I just don't get it. It's not like we're talking about Paul Rudolph here. Not that I wouldn't be just as disgusted if it were Rudolph, I just wouldn't be quite so surprised. Almost everything Rudolph has still standing is controversial in some way or another. He's an acquired taste.

Has no one ever even seen the National Gallery of Art building? It's an astonishingly beautiful structure. A coworker of mine recently saw the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston in person (sadly, I never have) and had a similar epiphany about that one (luckily the intervention there, by Rafael Viñoly, is receiving well-deserved accolades). This is the man entrusted with new construction at the Louvre, for crying out loud. I don't know that whole saga, but I can't imagine a project more likely to have to pass through a labyrinthine mire of hopelessly conservative committees and panels and bureaucracy. My point is, I find it difficult to believe that we're even having this conversation about I. M. Pei in the first place. What is the world coming to?

The final chapter.

©2010, Ryan Witte


Doug Newman said...

I believe "Sundrome" is a portmanteau of "sun" and "aerodrome." National was based in Miami and in this era really played up the "sun" theme, including its famous "Sun King" logo.

Christian Paolino said...

I agree with you here that there the landside portion of this terminal deserves to be saved.

One could argue that terminals 3, 4 & 5 all were structurally impossible to adapt to our new security realities, at least without modifying them beyond recognition. But this space is a big box and if you replace it the layout/traffic flow will be essentially the same. When jetBlue had it bursting at the seams, the space still worked well until you got to the narrow bridges and the security checkpoints. Widen the two bridges between the landside and airside buildings and add more lanes, and voila, it would work fine.

The motive for demolishing it is to give jetBlue more room to grow. I guess they do not want to operate out of two buildings so they are planning another wing of gates on T5 which would require the space where T6 sits.

Ryan Witte said...


Very interesting, thanks. I'd be curious what the chronology of that might have been, though, since when the PAONY began the project, it was not specifically intended for National.

Ryan Witte said...


Yes, 100%.

If I weren't so cynical about the possibility of even an entity without as bad a reputation as the PAoNY to choose a stellar architect to build something of a caliber equal or surpassing this one, I might not be quite so passionate about saving it. The way things are now, however, I'd be willing to bet big money that whatever replaces this will be a banal, if not downright ugly monstrosity. It just adds insult to injury, really.