Where the Sixties Never Stopped Swinging (Gander International Airport, Canada)

The Beauty of Transport is on holiday again this week. But this time there’s a back-up plan. Thanks to Andrew Garnett, long-time friend of the blog, not to mention deputy editor of leading UK transport industry magazine Passenger Transport, there’s still something to read this week. Andrew wrote to me recently with a suggestion for a topic to cover in the blog, but he did it so comprehensively that he ended up co-writing this week’s entry. That left me enough time to go on my hols – so thank you!

For 20 years after the end of the Second World War, Gander International Airport was an incredibly busy airport in the wilds of deepest, most remote Canada. The story of its astonishing interior design and rapid descent into near complete obsolescence is a story of what happens when national pride and technological development meet each other head on. In short, this:

Interior of the 1959 terminal at Gander International Airport. The glasshouse-type structure is a later addition which breaks up the original lines of the design. The large mural at top right is Kenneth Lochhead’s “Flight and its Allegories”. Photo by Zach Bonnell [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set

Amongst the trees and the winter snow – and to be honest not much else – of the north-east coast of Newfoundland, early post-war airliners (ones with propellers, or the first generation of commercial jet engines) would stop before making the long journey across the Atlantic, or land after making the crossing, to take on more fuel. The airliners of the day simply weren’t capable of making non-stop flights between the USA and Europe. If you look at a map the reason for stopping in Newfoundland isn’t obvious, as it appears to be much too far north. If you look at a globe however, and trace a route between the east coast of the USA and Europe, the distortions created by a map disappear, and you can see how Newfoundland was the last/first bit of land on which to build an airport.

Luckily, there had been an airfield at Gander since 1938, promptly requisitioned for conversion into a military airbase during the Second World War and used to fuel military aircraft before/after the long Atlantic crossing. Returned to civilian use in 1945, under the control of the Newfoundland Government, it became Gander International Airport.

The facilities on offer weren’t particularly impressive. The airport’s inherited early Heathrow-style terminal buildings consisting of huts and converted hangars were insufficient for the huge amount of traffic the airport ended up dealing with. By the 1950s Gander was handling 13,000 aircraft annually and some quarter of a million passengers. To cope with this number of passengers, the government authorised a massive new terminal at a cost of $3m¹. The business case was compelling. Gander was a big money spinner at the time with all those passengers getting off their planes for half an hour or so for a meal or a tea or coffee, and the airlines paying a passenger charge for each of them.

The Canadian Government wanted something very special that would showcase the new and thrusting modern Canada, so it commissioned a wonderful new building in the Modernist style. From the outside, there is little to suggest anything other than a typical airport:

Photo by Zach Bonnell [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set
Gander International Airport, exterior. Photo by Zach Bonnell [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set

On the inside, however, it is something quite brilliant. Everything in the terminal was specially commissioned, often from Canadian designers, including the seating, flooring and the enormous mural. It’s a truly wonderful space.

The terrazzo floor (well seen in the first photograph in this entry) is influenced by the work of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). The gigantic mural (3.7m tall by 22m wide) is called “Flight and its Allegories” and is the work of Canadian artist Kenneth Lochhead (see here for more on Gander’s artworks and here for more on Lochhead). Super stylish chairs were provided by top designers Charles and Ray Eames, Arne Jacobson (when he wasn’t busy designing one of the world’s most gorgeous petrol stations), and Canadian designer Robin Bush².

Photo by Zach Bonnell [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set
Stylish seating on the mezzanine level of Gander International Airport’s terminal. Photo by Zach Bonnell [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set

The terminal opened in 1959, but as a cutting edge design is very much in the 1960s Modernist style. Unfortunately, by the end of the 1950s a new generation of jet aircraft were just coming in with far longer ranges that made refuelling stop-overs in Gander largely redundant (see also the airports at Prestwick and Shannon for other locations that commissioned huge new terminals just as this traffic was dying off). As a result, Gander never really fulfilled its potential and it became a white elephant almost as soon as it opened. Its previously rock-solid business case had, virtually overnight, been completely eviscerated by advances in technology.

However, the airport’s sudden and dramatic downturn in its fortunes means that it has been almost perfectly preserved; a time capsule of early 1960s air travel. A busy terminal would have been remodelled over the years, its original fittings wearing out and being replaced, redecoration carried out, and new retail units being built to serve passengers, wiping out some or all of the original design in the process. It’s a process you can see at any contemporary airport which has retained its passenger flows. How much of the original design is left at any 1960s terminal which has remained heavily used?

At Gander though, the terminal building remains almost empty, and aside from seasonal charters and low-cost flights to Florida, the majority of flights are 19-seat turboprops flying to other destinations in eastern Canada (the trickle of passengers passing through benefit from amazing levels of style and comfort). The airport today caters for a handful of regional flights a day, despite having a handling capacity far in excess of that. That redundant capacity came in very useful following the terrorist attacks 9/11 when many flights were diverted there after American airspace was closed. One wonders what those passengers, already disoriented and probably extremely nervous, made of it all when they were disgorged directly into the 1960s.

Photo by Zach Bonnell [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set
Designer seating, floating staircase and minimalist wall clocks in the terminal at Gander International Airport. Photo by Zach Bonnell [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set

Thanks to the massive influence of television programmes like Mad Men, 1960s Modernism is very much in vogue at the moment, and the Canadian Broadcasting Company has indeed acknowledged Gander’s “Mad Men appeal” (here). Unfortunately, being achingly stylish isn’t enough for Gander’s terminal to justify its existence. It’s a huge, and hugely expensive, building to operate given its low usage. It’s a miracle it’s lasted this long, frankly, but the airport authority now wants to replace the historic terminal with a much smaller facility that won’t cost as much to operate. The airport cannot afford to continue funding the vast over-provision of facilities that the terminal building represents.

“To put it bluntly, we’re not in the museum business,” Gary Vey, president and CEO of the Gander International Airport Authority, is quoted as saying in a recent article in Canada’s National Post (here). It’s the lament of many a managing director of a transport firm as they knock down a pretty but dysfunctional Victorian station building, or withdraw “characterful” old-fashioned trains in favour of modern air-conditioned ones, or get rid of open-platform buses and bus conductors in favour of front-entrance low-floor buses operated by drivers only.

However, there is a nascent preservation movement seeking to get the building saved. The airport isn’t against the idea of preserving the historic terminal, but notes that it can’t be expected to fund the terminal’s preservation itself. If this was a perfectly preserved Victorian or Art Deco railway station we were talking about, we wouldn’t even be having a discussion over whether or not the terminal should be saved, and who should pay for it. It would simply be being done. Because the terminal is relatively new, it’s less obvious to the wider world that it should be retained and the money found to do so. But in another 50 years or so, our descendants will thank us, or curse us if we fail. Gander International Airport’s historic terminal is at a fork in the road, on the verge of either being the Grand Central of the airline industry, or the Penn Station. We know which one we’d prefer…

how to find Gander International Airport

references and further reading

¹ Facts and figures from Gander Airport’s website, here
The campaign to preserve Gander Airport’s terminal, here
² designers’ identities from dwell.com article on Gander Airport, here
…and anything else linked to above will have been read and used to inform this entry

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