Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal whilst it was still open (left) and as photographed by Brian Kelly in October (right)


Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal brought back to life

Thousands descend on the Finnish architect's iconic JFK building as it reopens - for just three hours

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Last weekend a crowd descended upon the TWA Terminal at JFK, not because of flight delays, but because the building was open to the public again but for just three short hours. Designed by Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen in 1956 and finished in 1962 – a year after his death, this was the first time the public had been given access to the building since its closure in 2001.

"We knew the opening of the terminal would be a great opportunity for architecture enthusiasts," says Renee Schacht, executive director of Open House New York who staged the event. "But we were especially gratified to see so many people there who shared their special memories of the terminal with us." One visitor said: "It was a treat walking through that place when it was still in use. I vividly remember walking down the tubes to the jetways. They seemed to go on forever."

The TWA Terminal was "all one thing" Saarinen said at the time meaning that it was one thing to create a memorable monument with no other purpose than commemoration, as with his Gateway Arch in St. Louis, but quite another to design a complicated type of public building as a powerful expression of the activity it was built to house.

The architect was the perfect choice for the TWA project. The airline's president, Ralph Dawson, wanted a building that captured "the spirit of flight." Dawson envisioned "a building in which the architecture itself expresses the drama and excitement of travel, not a static, enclosed space, but a place of movement and transition."

The terminal incorporated many new ideas that have since became standard practice. At check-in, passengers were separated from their baggage which was taken to the planes at ground level. Those arriving retrieved luggage from, another new idea, moving carousels. Incoming passengers arrived in one wing, outgoing passengers left through another; and everyone gathered in the exuberant, vaulted two-story lobby.

Getting to the point where everyone could move through the terminal smoothly was not easy. One of Saarinen's architects, Kevin Roche recalls in the Phaidon book, Eero Saarinen that while they were trying to find the right shape, "Eero was eating breakfast one morning and using the rind of his grapefruit to describe the terminal shell. He pushed down the centre to mimic the depression that he desired, and the grapefruit bulged. This was the seed for the bulges in the shell."

Eero Saarinen based the design of the TWA Terminal on a grapefruit sliced in halfEero Saarinen based the design of the TWA Terminal on a grapefruit sliced in half

Many wire-framed, rough cardboard models later, someone suggested breaking the long axis of the roof to follow the curve of the road, so Roche cut the thing in half with a saw, creating four adjacent shells that counterbalanced each other at the centre. The architects only had to model half of the entire space of the building because it was symmetrical; a mirror on the edge of the model provided a picture of the whole space. "Gradually," Saarinen said, "we evolved a more flowing line for the bridge connecting the balconies, the stairways leading to them on each side, and the surfaces around the stairway."

Eero Saarinen inspects a model of his TWA TerminalEero Saarinen inspects a model of his TWA Terminal

The $15-million dollar building originally opened in 1962. Saarinen did not live to see it completed, but in April 1961, just after he was diagnosed with a brain tumour, he said, "TWA is beginning to look marvelous. If anything happened and they had to stop work right now and just leave it in this state, I think it would make a beautiful ruin, like the Baths of Caracalla."

The terminal ceased operating in October 2001 when TWA’s financial position became untenable after the impact of 9/11 on air travel. Various plans were put forward for its use, including one which saw the building encircled by two new terminals - needless to say they were not well received. 

Architect Philip Johnson, commenting on the proposal said: "This building represents a new idea in 20th-century architecture, and yet we are willing to strangle it by enclosing it within another building. Imagine, tying a bird's wings up. This will make the building invisible. If you're going to strangle a building to death, you might as well tear it down."

Partial restoration of the terminal finished in 2008 with the addition of the JetBlue terminal at JFK. Since then, a $20 million restoration of the remainder of the building has been undertaken by New York and Washington DC based, Beyer Binder Belle Architects (BBB) whose previous projects include the restoration of Grand Central Station, originally built in 1913, and the Art Deco LaGuardia Marine Air Terminal. BBB have overseen repairs to the roof and drainage systems, removal of unsympathetic additions and asbestos and refurbishing the original flooring. Seating areas and even the flight information board and desks have already been restored, bringing the building back to its glory days.

Although no set use has been agreed upon for the restored building, the New York Port Authority is seeking private companies to run various operations. These options include a hotel, restaurants and a destination space to relax before catching a shuttle to another terminal. “We’re looking at this as an investment,” said Jim Stevens, the Port of Authority of New York and New Jersey’s Manager of JFK’s Physical Plant and Redevelopment. 

Click through the gallery above to see our selection of photographs taken by Brian Kelley and Seamus Murray.


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Brian Kelly, Phaidon Press