Eero Saarinen’s last work, the TWA Terminal at JFK, will soon enjoy a second, temporary life as a Kunsthalle. And after thattwho knows? As Cathy Lang Ho reports, the future of the modernist masterpiece is as open as the sky.
Photography by Dean Kaufman.
Long before Santiago Calatrava unveiled his architectural allegory for flight that will become the downtown PATH station, Eero Saarinen gave New York City a symbol that captured the grace and excitement of the jet age by mimicking the shape of a soaring bird. Since its completion in 1962, the TWA Terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport has served as an icon of both modern air travel and modern design. But its daring gull-winged constructionna reinforced concrete sculpture that tested the limits of its material and of what modernism could beewas the source of its distinction as well as downfall. The building’s stand-alone, sinewy form made it difficult to adapt it to the rapidly modernizing airline industry. Larger airplanes, increased passenger flow and automobile traffic, computerized ticketing, handicapped accessibility, and security screening are just a few of the challenges that Terminal 5 (as it’s officially known) could not meet without serious alteration. When the terminal closed in 2001 (in the wake of TWA’s demise in 1999), no other airline stepped up to take over the space.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PA) did, however, receive dozens of expressions of interest from sources ranging from the Finnish government to the Municipal Art Society to the Partnership for New York City. We expected to hear from preservationists, cultural organizations, and business people, but what surprised us was the number of requests we got from the general publiccregular people, travelersswho are just deeply interested in this building,, said Ralph Tragale, manager of government and community relations for the Port Authority. One of the requests came from Rachel K. Ward, an independent curator who worked previously with the theme of tourism and the cross influences of global travel and global art in an exhibition in Switzerland. Her particular interest in tourist sites and destinations was the basis of an idea to stage a series of installations that respond to and are situated within the arch-symbol of commercial travel itself. The result, Terminal 5, presents site-specific works by 18 artists, as well as a series of lectures, events, and additional temporary installations (see sidebar), on view from October 1 to January 31. The building is such a potent symbol, representing so many thingssair travel, the 1960s, transitions, globalism,, said Ward. Each artist had a unique response.. First lady of text messaging Jenny Holzer has, naturally, staked out the arrivals and departures board, while Ryoji Ikeda has created a series of light and sound installations for one of the tunnels. In mid-September, Vanessa Beecroft filmed a live performance piece in the terminallher first since 20011 which will be screened in the space. Toland Grinnell, known for his penchant for luggage, will make use of the baggage claim area. What’s exciting to me is that the artists are using the building’s forms to create works that will only exist in this space,, said Ward. Organizers are trying to arrange a shuttle service from Manhattan, and encourage the use of the new AirTrain.
Ward’s timing was an important reason why the PA accepted her proposal. The exhibition’s run precedes a long period of construction that will not end until 2008. The exhibition is a great opportunity to let the public enjoy the space,, said Tragale, and to show other potential uses for it.. Plans for Terminal 5’s future have been contentious, with a battle played out publicly last year between the PA and preservationists who objected to a new terminal design concept that would have engulfed the landmark. Critics blasted the inital plan’s intent to cut off Terminal 5’s views of the runway, which motivated the design’s floor-to-ceiling windows. They also objected to the idea that it would no longer be used as a functioning terminal. At that time, Kent Barwick, the president of the Municipal Art Society, said, By eliminating use of the terminal, you’re condemning the building to a slow death.. Even Philip Johnson, who knew Saarinen, weighed in, telling The Los Angeles Times earlier this year, This building represents a new idea in 20th-century architecture, and yet we are willing to strangle it by enclosing it within another building. If you’re going to strangle a building to death, you may as well tear it down..
In October 2003 Jet Blue entered an agreement with the PA to expand its presence at JFK. The upstart domestic airlineethe busiest at JFK, accounting for 7 million of the airport’s 30 million passengers yearlyy was initially interested in the possibility of actively using the Saarinen structure but found that the cost to retrofit the relic exceeded that of building an entirely new terminal. Jet Blue commissioned Gensler and Associates to design a new terminal adjacent to Terminal 5, which, though still in concept phase, was released last month. The $850 million, 625,000-square-foot terminal is much smaller and more respectful of its site than the initial concept that so riled preservationists last year. The sheer reduction in size makes it better, but we’re still concerned about the terminal being an active space,, said Theodore Prudon, president of DOCOMOMO-US. If it becomes just a left-over space, it’s a disservice to the building. Also, it’s more vulnerable if it’s economically unviable.. Terminal 5 will be used, but the question is how intensely,, said Bill Hooper, senior principal in charge of the project at Gensler. We’re still in design development now, trying to figure out how to make as much of the original terminal work.. Gensler’s design begins with the renovation of the two tunnels that extend from the terminal to connect to waiting airplanes, known as Flight Wing Tube #1, which was part of Saarinen’s original design, and Flight Wing Tube #2, which was designed in the late 1960s by Roche Dinkeloo to support 747s that did not exist when the terminal was first built. A new plaza will occupy the space between the two terminals, allowing visitors a view, until now unseen, toward Terminal 5’s backside.
Beyer Blinder Belle will oversee the structure’s restoration to its 1962 state. The process will involve undoing four decades’ worth of alterations and additions, such as new baggage rooms and a sun canopy that was attached to the faaade. For its part, Jet Blue has expressed its desire to integrate the Saarinen building into its corporate image. As a result, Gensler’s design is low profile, which reflects both its placement behind Terminal 5 and the way Jet Blue does business,, said Hooper. Jet Blue has also made the Terminal 5 exhibition possible, signing on as a major sponsor. After the exhibition closes, the PA will issue an RFP for the structure’s adaptive reuse. We’ve heard ideas for a museum, a restaurant, a conference center,, said Tragale. We’re open to what the business community has to offer..
Cathy Lang Ho is an editor at AN.