Terminal Impact (TWA Flight Center, JFK Airport, New York)

I absolutely love this week’s subject. It is easily one of my favourite buildings in the world. Despite the fact that I don’t really like flying very much, it’s an airport terminal. So without further ado, can I whole-heartedly recommend the TWA Flight Center at New York’s JFK Airport as a building which not only did its job, but actively made the world a more beautiful place?

The TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport. By pheezy (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport. By pheezy (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

There is nothing about the TWA Flight Center that didn’t reek of the glamour of 1960s jet travel. From the outside, its swooping wings spoke of giant birds speeding around the globe. On the inside, red-carpeted tubular walkways took passengers from the terminal to the jet gates themselves. The galleries, stairs, waiting areas and even the departure/arrival screen housings were organically moulded into the building itself. Vast windows between the Y-shaped buttresses gave passengers the opportunity to watch TWA’s jets arrive and depart. No, forget that. They gave passengers the chance to see the future arrive.

JFK Airport (or Idlewild as it was called at the time) was unusual in having terminals serving particular airlines (though it’s a practice that has seen something of a revival with Terminal 5 at Heathrow effectively the British Airways terminal). So in 1956 TWA called on Finnish architect Eero Saarinen to design them a new building. It took some five years, opening in 1961-62 (there seems to be some confusion about exactly which year in the various sources I’ve been studying).

Elevations of the TWA Flight Center. By Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Library of Congress (Daderot) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Elevations of the TWA Flight Center. By Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Library of Congress (Daderot) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It was glamorous and glorious, and of course, it couldn’t last. Just as jet travel declined over the subsequent decades from a glamour experience of cocktails at 30,000 feet for the select few, to the humdrum mundanity of mass air travel (and the grinding joylessness of today’s no-frills airlines), so the fortunes of the TWA Flight Center waned in tandem. TWA went bankrupt in 2001, and the Flight Center closed, a curvaceous bombshell in a world that had left it behind.

In 2005, when airline JetBlue needed more terminal space at JFK, a new Terminal 5 was built behind and partially surrounding the TWA Flight Center. Though some of the outlying parts of the TWA terminal were demolished to accommodate the new Terminal 5, the main Flight Center building was retained. It was a close-run thing. One idea had been to bury the Flight Center within a new terminal building.

The original plan was to use the Flight Center as the check-in for the new Terminal 5, but that now seems to have been abandoned because the layout doesn’t really suit the workings of a modern airport terminal, with facilities like automated check-in, and the need for enhanced security features. So the building is still mothballed, but it is at least being restored, and in October 2011 the Flight Centre was opened as part of  New York’s Open House day, showing progress in the restoration (go on, check out the photos; if you haven’t seen the interior they will amaze you, I promise). It is now on the American National Register of Historic Places, qualifying for tax incentives for its restoration, so hopefully its future is reasonably secure even if it serves a different purpose from its original use.

Airport terminals still represent one of the great architectural opportunities in transport, and some recent examples (Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital International, and Terminal 4 at Madrid-Barajas, for instance) make a persuasive argument for the glamour and sophistication of air travel. On the other hand, some don’t. Terminal 5 at London’s Heathrow Airport is, well, a big glass shed that wouldn’t look out of place on an out-of-town retail park with a B&Q Warehouse inside it. We could, and should, do better.

Terminal 5 at London Heathrow Airport. By Warren Rohner (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, if a use can’t be found for the TWA Flight Center in the long term, it need only be shipped over and reconstructed somewhere on the British coast and I’ll happily live in it. America is a long way to go in order to gaze at it.

So imagine my surprise and delight when I found that Britain has its very own version of the TWA Flight Center. As Britain is to America, so the British version is smaller and rather less dramatic. It also served an altogether more prosaic purpose than the TWA Flight Center. Next time, I’ll explain what that building, and its purpose, was…

11 thoughts on “Terminal Impact (TWA Flight Center, JFK Airport, New York)

  1. Hi Daniel Have to say I’m enjoying the posts. One the subject of airports, could Ipersuadeyou consider doing a piece on the wonderful roof of the TGV station at Lyon Airport…? Paul

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    1. Thanks! You are the very first person to nominate a subject, so your wish will be granted. It’s already on the long list but I’ll bump it up and cover it in the next few weeks. I’ve never been there, only ever seen the photos…

    1. It’s made of concrete. And the crash relates to TWA Flight 800, which left JFK Airport on July 17, 1996, but exploded a few minutes into its flight. This was later determined to be due to a fuel tank explosion, although conspiracy theorists remain unsatisfied with that explanation.

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