Michael Bierut | Essays

Eero Saarinen's Forty Year Layover

Trans World Airlines Terminal at Idlewild Airport, Eero Saarinen, 1962
Photo: Ezra Stoller © Esto.
Courtesy Henry Urbach Architecture Gallery

We saw a new play on Broadway last week: a revival of Arthur Miller's 1964 drama After the Fall. The cast included some familiar faces - Peter Krause from "Six Feet Under," Carla Gugino from "Karen Sisco" - but the most familiar face of all was the set. Richard Hoover's design is not just inspired by, but is a nearly faithful reproduction of, Eero Saarinen's landmark TWA Terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport.

If you fly into JFK, you may see the unmistakable silhouette of the TWA Terminal from the outside. But not the inside: its namesake carrier defunct, the interior spaces have been closed to visitors for more than two years.

This makes its hold on the popular imagination all the more fascinating.

As a moviegoer, you may have seen Saarinen's interiors in Catch Me if You Can, where Steven Spielberg and production designer Jeannine Oppewall used TWA's concourses to instantly evoke the breezy, sexy spirit that informed the dawn of the jet set era. Sometimes the reference is more indirect. In Men in Black, anti-alien operatives Jay and Kay work out of a high-tech headquarters filled with TWA's characteristic sculptural swoops. (The Saarinen influence even provides one of the movie's great sight gags, when Will Smith casually attempts to move one of the master's much-heavier-than-they-look Knoll coffee tables.)

Miller's psychodrama After the Fall attracted attention when first staged for its thinly-disguised portrayal of Miller's tumultuous marriage to Marilyn Monroe. The script leaves the setting ambiguous: the action is meant to take place inside the protagonist's head. But in Michael Mayer's staging, instead of a darkened stage, we see Saarinen's voluptuous curves. "The design Richard Hoover and I came up with very specifically situates the play at a TWA at Kennedy, which we discovered was built in May of 1962," said director Mayer. "In my mind, the play starts in the fall of that year, a few months after the terminal was built, and it was sleek, brand new and very beautiful. This design seems to lend itself to the transformational quality you want from the rest of the play." To Hoover's credit, the set is not just respectful but downright adulatory: he even gets the signage right.

More than any other modern monument, Saarinen's TWA seems to capture a lost America of imagination and hope, captured forever in Ezra Stoller's dreamlike black and white photographs. But for a moment, the building itself appeared to be doomed: a plan was afoot to demolish parts of the complex and build an enormous new terminal around it, preserving a token vestige of the original building as a site for retail shops and administrative offices. But thanks to the intervention of preservation groups led by the Municipal Arts Society, a new plan is awaiting Federal Aviation Administration approval. [Which it just received: see comment below.] It calls for leaving the building largely intact as an entrance to the gates of its new tenant, popular low cost carrier Jet Blue. The restored, reopened terminal will no doubt create new associations for new generations of travelers.

When it was first built, Saarinen's terminal was criticized by doctrinaire modernists for the crowd-pleasing literalism of its metaphors: the outside looked like a bird in flight, the inside like billowing clouds. It all seemed a bit too easy and specific, not cool and abstract enough too conform to the universalist ambitons of modernism. How strange it is that 40 years later that same building has come to mean so many different things to so many different people.

Michael Mayer has said that his production of After the Fall is meant to explore the idea of "borders in the mind being the most lethal borders that exist" and asks "What is an airport but a border between two places?" In Saarinen's indestructable terminal, we may have found a perfect monument for these uncertain times.

Comments [13]

In his Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1995), Marc Auge argues that the airport terminal is a "non-place," a place for passing through, for forgetting, for not occupying. Thanks to Michael Bierut's musings, we now have the TWA terminal as a counter-example to Auge's idea of the airport terminal as a non-place. Too often we travel from non-place to non-place. But, as Bierut points out, Saarinen's terminal has made itself a place within our popular conscious. Taken in this way, anyone having seen it appear in After the Fall or in Catch Me If You Can will have the uncanny feeling of having occupied this very special place before.
Michael J. Golec

Interesting stuff. The terminal is currently being used for an art show.
Matt Soar

This just in: the Port Authority's agreement with JetBlue to create a new facility for the carrier at the TWA terminal has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. This will include the restoration and reuse of the original Saarinen building, although, according to the NY Times, "how Terminal 5 will be used, besides as a small diversion for JetBlue passengers walking to and from their new terminal, has not been determined."
Michael Bierut

A little promotion here: those amazing Stoller pictures are available, with a preface by a Ezra himself, in the book The TWA Terminal, published by Princeton Architectural Press.
Mark Lamster

Does anyone know who was responsible for Terminals 8 & 9 at JFK? Never have I seen such buildings designed to emphasise monotony and boredom.

Terminal 8 was designed by a DMJM Aviation, a very nuts and bolts corprorate firm that specializes in making cookie cutter-type terminals.

I've studied the TWA Terminal in school for years, but it wasn't until 3 years ago, when I went to pick up a friend at JFK (who was an hour late) did I actually get to explore it. It was an empty night and the spaces have aged gracefully and are stunning as ever. If you are outside of it, you can touch the "tail" of this winged bird, and you'll be able to feel its fragility and lightness.

The fact that the TWA Terminal has been able to mean so many different things to various generations is perhaps testament to the fact that even as a static structure, it is constantly changing. And I think that is its true beauty.

A note to all you art directors out there: Christoph Morlinghaus, a young German photographer, has taken some of the most stunning photographs of the TWA Terminal I have ever seen. You can see a few images on the Web site of his agency Unit. The work on his site is by no means comprehensive so request his portfolio and use him!
Andrew Yang

One of Marc Auge's points in 'Non-Spaces' is that airport design has evolved to a point at which your first experience of a new city, country or culture can be a continuation of the experience of your point of departure. That's to say, one can acclimatise to the differences in language, signage et al. while knowing how and where to move. Airport interiors -- and especially the gates -- are now akin to the embassies of an identifiable but non-existent country, and designed accordingly.

In cultural terms, there's perhaps an argument that the early 60s marked the culmination of a period in which air travel remained something out of the ordinary for most Americans, and could be framed by extraordinary design. The introduction of jet services, coast-to-coast routes and computerised route planning changed all that.
Nick Sweeney

I've always taken Auge to mean that the generic nature of airport terminals creates nods that maintain an illusion of global connectedness. If, as Nick says, "your first experience of a new city, country or culture can be a continuation of the experience of your departure," then what defines the non-place is its non-cultural specificity. By this logic, one could travel from airport to airport without ever having the sense of change or difference. It isn't the case that one "acclimatizes to differences in language," but that all differences in language, culture, geography, are elided by the application of a so-called "international" style of architecture and signage to the design of airport terminals.

Nick is correct, I believe, in his assessment of the cultural (I would add historical) specificity of Saarinen's TWA terminal. Perhaps, the extraordinary design was not a frame but a result of a belief in the technology that allowed air-travel to become a part of our day-to-day experience.
Michael J. Golec

My first trip to Europe was through the TWA terminal at JFK. Eager to go on my first architectural pilgrimages, I shot more than an entire roll of film before we had even left US soil. Fantastic place, although I think Saarinen's Dulles terminal is a superior work. Unfortunately, work being done at Dulles is not always as senstitive to the original as one might hope.
Richard Anderson

The temporary exhibit mounted in the TWA Terminal has been shut down due to drunken antics at the opening party. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Michael Bierut

As a former TWA employee, the events of last Wed. and Fri. in our beautiful building are tragic! The idea of art gallery and museum was brillant. Such a shame that it was so poorly managed. Let's hope that the idea will not be shelved forever. For forty years I departed from that terminal and always knew it was special.
elizabeth conlon

Thanks to Andrew Yang for his comments on Christoph Morlinghaus, one of the most talented people I have ever worked with!
constanza camargo

An art gallery in an airport is destined to be doomed.

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