By and Large

TWA Terminal Revisited (continued from Home Page)

All of the battles -- and the creeping decay that came with abandonment -- figured in stark contrast to 1962, when the expressionistic terminal opened as the last word in glamorous air travel as passengers dressed elegantly, not comfortably in sweatpants, for the occasion. It instantly became a global icon of flight, the most famous aviation building in the world.

Using concrete and steel, which Eero Saarinen maintained were the only true modern materials, he explained the quest for “a building that would express the drama and specialness and excitement of travel....We wanted the architecture to reveal the terminal, not as a static, enclosed place, but as a place of movement and transition. We wanted an uplift.”

The stories about working in Eero’s office for countless hours (TWA claimed more time than any other project), about lying on the floor or standing on tables to build progressively larger, ultimately full-scale models, and about endlessly sketching and refining, refining, refining are the well known lore of Saarinen’s practice.

But now, seeing the terminal with fresh eyes after its painstaking 10-year restoration by Port Authority in association with architects Beyer Blinder Belle, the power of the architecture and the sheer brilliance involved in making it were the arresting focus.

Each view of the compound, incredibly complex curves, all masterfully orchestrated for continuous flow from the smallest detail to the overall building brought the almost unbelievable realization that it was all done pre-CATIA, pre-CADD...pre-computer.


It was great to once again move within this swooping, multi-level building with its sunken lounges, suspended bridges, and shallow steps that invite gliding rather than climbing. Center stage are the giant windows onto thrilling views of planes lifting off or landing in the early days of commercial aviation, all evoked by the architecture and brilliantly offset by Charles & Ray Eames’ signature TWA red love seats.

It’s easy to get caught up in the undulating forms and inevitably, in any conversation about the building, that’s the enthusiastic topic discussed. But thanks to OHNY, and lingering rather than rushing to catch a plane, I focused on the fact that virtually the entire interior -- all the walls, floors, stairs, information desk, planters, fountains, almost everything is covered by small circular ceramic tiles.

Most are about a half-inch across but two smaller discs help to blend the surface into a continuum, like rattlesnake or scaley fish skin or the invisible structure of bone cells revealed. I was briefly reminded of the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama who compulsively duplicates polka dots to create “Infinity Nets.”

The difference is that Terminal 5 is monotonal and the individual dots don’t so much make an obvious pattern as they do structure a quiet organic background wherein the floors and walls dissolve into each other. Everything is part of the larger whole.

Some four million tiles were used in the restoration campaign alone, in addition to the millions of original custom-made tiles that remained in place. I imagined their installation: most tiles were affixed to net sheets but many tiles were laid individually by hand in the grout, including the knuckle tiles that angle around the leading edge of each stair. The vision conjured up armies of craftsmen working madly, inch by inch, across the 170,000-square-foot building. Oh, what glorious obsession!



Like most, I was captivated by the information desk/destination board that commands the terminal’s front lobby. Seen straight on, it is balanced and firmly anchored, with clear departure information on a black ground that vaguely suggests some friendly alien visage.

But from every other perspective, the desk races forward like some Futurist sculpture by Umberto Boccioni, no less expressive of movement but more stately, monumental, and more controlled; more architectural.

As I circled around the continuous form I thought of a Kline bottle with no beginning and no end. And then I ventured inside, which was not easy to do. How in the world did TWA’s service personnel begin their day?

There are only two ways in or out: crawling under the open counter (the top is an unhinged marble slab) or, my ungainly route without handrails or supports, by climbing over the lowest edge of the enclosure, which is about a foot high and spreads out dimensionally toward the bottom like an angle-less triangle, a wave, before leveling out with the floor.

Either way, it would have been a challenge, particularly in the heels and pencil-straight skirts of 1960s uniforms. Maybe the desk was attended by men who made sport of it by hurdling over or under? Either way, it’s clear that such concerns were secondary. Art above all.

Actually that’s one of the challenges facing the terminal’s reuse, specifically in accommodating ADA codes. The current plan to engage the terminal as the public space of two new hotel wings faces a host of challenges.

But who knows? Maybe the terminal will become a destination in itself, a cool place to come for dinner or drinks, or a convenient gathering place for out-of-town guests arriving in New York for a special event, maybe even the place to hold the special event, or a wedding reception, or party. Certainly it would be a great place to spend a few hours waiting for a delayed or canceled flight.

Unfortunately, traffic from outside the airport will likely remain a problem but, like a pilgrimage, the arduous journey will be richly rewarded.


Janet Adams Strong, Ph.D.