The interim logo for JetBlue’s new Terminal 5 at John F. Kennedy Airport showed the abbreviation T5 rising like a phoenix behind the iconic roofline of Eero Saarinen’s 1962 TWA Terminal. The graphic expressed a literal truth: the new $743 million, 26-gate terminal sits directly behind TWA, embracing it with a series of gently curved roadways and a façade of dark gray steel and glass. It also expressed the hopes of many in the preservation community that TWA (or at least its spectacular reinforced-concrete symbol) would live, making flying seem as glamorous as it had in the 1960s, when jet travel was a breathless innovation.
This spring, the Port Authority, which now owns TWA, agreed to spend $19 million on asbestos abatement and other repairs so that JetBlue passengers would have the option of checking in, via electronic kiosk, in Saarinen’s building, then trundling up one of the tubes dramatized in “Catch Me If You Can” to catch a flight. But a 2006 RFP for other uses — a themed restaurant, a museum of airline modernism — failed, likely due to skittishness by developers about taking on the cost of those repairs. The Port Authority says it is still committed to reopening the terminal once the abatement is completed at the end of 2008. A second RFP will probably be issued early in 2009, according to PA public affairs officer Pasquale DiFulco. He says the PA sees TWA as a multi-use building, not an empty shell, but how it could be used is still very much TBD.
Meanwhile, JetBlue has moved on. Though the old graphic is plastered on its current home, Terminal 6, the new Terminal 5 logo diminishes Saarinen, replacing the graceful swoop with the pedestrian outline — a lopsided fish’s tail? — of the new building’s ground plan inside the 5. The logo says they are trying to move past the Saarinen shack in their front yard, and to highlight their own accomplishment.
This might be possible if the new building were the kind of radical aesthetic break TWA was. But the structure, designed by Gensler, is explicitly deferential: low and dark, hugging the ground and uninflected across its long façade but for the roof that tips-up on the left side at an angle that, if you stand in just the right place, extends Saarinen’s roof to the sky. If TWA were not in front, you might not give T5 a second glance. Looking at Kennedy overall, littered with gray and glass and steel buildings, you wouldn’t necessarily notice it was new.
This seems especially strange in light of the news from abroad, where Richard Rogers’ Terminal 4 in Madrid and Norman Foster’s Terminal 3 in Beijing are winning raves as true game-changers for the contemporary experience of flight. While Gensler has spiffed up, daylighted and streamlined the airport experience inside T5, nothing really feels different. The changes seem largely cosmetic and technological. Maybe that’s all the travelling public needs — and we need all the help we can get — but one can’t help but expect more in Saarinen’s backyard.
Most will drive to the front door of T5, but 25 percent of passengers will reach it along a curving, elevated hall from the AirTrain, a white space with people movers that stands on stilts between T5 and T6. This leaves room for possible expansion, and also gives passengers the opportunity to look out over TWA and the rest of the airport, a ballet of moving ground-level parts. Oddly, though, the runway-side windows are up at the ceiling, so you can’t see the planes. Gensler project principal Bill Hooper says this was to keep people moving — one can imagine kids, especially, stopping in their tracks to watch, but it also seems ungenerous.
The hall — white terrazzo floors, white-painted steel, white walls — also establishes the non-color scheme followed in the rest of the terminal. JetBlue blue is used sparingly, too sparingly, as an accent, making all the big spaces light and airy but fairly bland. And can those big white walls really be low-maintenance, as claimed?
The arrivals hall has more clerestories, and a pitched ceiling striped with metal trusses. Rows of check-in kiosks occupy the center of the floor, actual agents are against the wall, creating two lateral lines of passenger traffic toward the central security area. The terminal is designed to accommodate 20 million passengers per year, and up to 250 daily flights, which JetBlue says is equivalent to LaGuardia’s total volume. The JetBlue system turns planes around in 30 minutes, rather than the average 75. The space is nice enough — the daylight relieves the onset of airport claustrophobia — but nothing special. There’s no directionality in the ceiling, nothing interesting on the walls, no sense of drama. The best view of the TWA Terminal is from this level, back out the front glass, but who is going to look at anything but the blue flight screens?
Saarinen’s oval flight tubes meet JetBlue awkwardly, in a pair of pedestrian boxes, tacked on to the front. What one will see at the end of the oval is a white wall. The right-hand and landmarked tube of 1962 couldn’t be made accessible, Gensler says, and so the nostalgic traveller who wanted to use it would then need to descend a flight of stairs, luggage in hand. (The left-hand tube of 1969 does have an elevator.) They are not integrated into the highly thought-out path (Hooper stressed the terminal’s “intuitive circulation,” minimum signage for maximum flow) but appendices.
There’s even less drama in the security area, which shifts the shade to gray, lowers the ceiling, and seems to say, “Let’s just get through this.” Terminals built in the post-9/11 era can accommodate the new indignities, and there will be a 225-foot bench on which to re-group and re-shoe after the check. I can’t say how it works — if it isn’t an improvement that would be a design crime — but it would be nice to have something interesting to look at while waiting.
Interest, instead, is reserved for the terminal “Marketplace,” another area of life infiltrated by the brand-speak of the mall. RockwellGroup was hired to make something of the triangular space, which will funnel arriving passengers through the center and down to the baggage claim, departing passengers around the edges to an array of upscale dining and shopping options (Muji! Lacoste! Jamba Juice! Tapas! And a sports bar). To center the space, RG designed an overhead tension ring, an homage to Saarinen’s staircases hung from a twist of cables. The outside of the ring is lined with screens that will show information and video art. On either side of the ring, down on the floor, there will be isles of bleacher seating with movable cushions, places to watch the crowd but not get in the way. These were not yet installed on my tour, but will be an interesting experiment — architect David Rockwell cited William H. Whyte’s research on people’s behaviour in urban parks as his model, an authentic NYC touch.
It is at this point, in the Marketplace, that the sad limbo of TWA begins to fade, and some new ideas start to emerge. As one moves toward the gates, rather than closing in the terminal opens up. Floors and walls and ceilings are white again, but here that feels expansive rather than generic. Skylights above shower light down on the aisle, and the concourses are narrow enough that you can see out the windows on both sides. Branded carpeting, with staccato stripes of blue and orange on JetBlue blue, is held to the edges, defining gate areas but not swamping the space in pattern.
Services are on the right, for departing passengers; white-on-white bathrooms on the left for arriving ones. In the main concourse, at the very end, is a big window from which you can watch planes criss-crossing on takeoff and landing. This is the view wanted in the AirTrain hall. Just to have light and movement at the end of the many gates pulls you through an often monotonous trek. This is the terminal’s best moment.
As for one’s return, the baggage handling system is supposed to be state-of-the art, and delivered on big orange-topped carousels below. There’s no way to disguise the underground nature of baggage claim, or to remove one’s instinctive preparation for loss, so while the space seems pleasant enough — the bold blue Panelite on the back wall should be soothing — proof will be in the speedy return of luggage.
As we toured the terminal, David Rockwell mentioned JetBlue’s retro idea about the glamour of flight. Indeed, especially when it first appeared on the airline scene, the look of JetBlue seemed taken directly from the Saarinen era. Tails of the airline’s planes partake of that jittery fun, each one sporting a different blue-on-blue pattern of diamonds, stripes, dots. But the terminal doesn’t. Perhaps flying is just too serious a business now, but it feels like JetBlue has lost its sense of surprise in its middle age. This terminal is clearly an attempt to further establish and bolster its reputation. But TWA is all too present a reminder of an architecture that once transported.
This essay was first publishd in Architect's Newspaper, October 1, 2008.