This article was originally published on June 16, 2016. To read the stories behind other celebrated architecture projects, visit our AD Classics section.
Built in the early days of airline travel, the TWA Terminal is a concrete symbol of the rapid technological transformations which were fueled by the outset of the Second World War. Eero Saarinen sought to capture the sensation of flight in all aspects of the building, from a fluid and open interior, to the wing-like concrete shell of the roof. At TWA’s behest, Saarinen designed more than a functional terminal; he designed a monument to the airline and to aviation itself.
This AD Classic features a series of exclusive images by Cameron Blaylock, photographed in May 2016. Blaylock used a Contax camera and Zeiss lenses with Rollei black and white film to reflect camera technology of the 1960s.
Though airplanes had existed since the early 1900’s, it was not until after the Second World War that commercial air travel started to become commonplace. Trans World Airlines was a key player in this development: by allowing customers to purchase flights in discounted packages and offering extended payment plans, the airline took an expensive luxury option and made it accessible to America’s burgeoning middle class. In some cases, their price reductions made travel by airplane cheaper than that by train.
With air travel on the rise, the Port of New York Authority instituted a plan to expand Idlewild Airport (today’s John F. Kennedy Airport) in 1954. The plan, which would allow the airport to handle the massively increased air traffic in and out of New York City, called for each major airline to design, construct, and operate its own independent terminal, a scheme dubbed “Terminal City.” This arrangement was made at the urging of the airlines themselves, who saw it as an opportunity to forge lasting brand identities for themselves in the new terminals they would build – regardless of the spatial and aesthetic disarray it would ultimately foment.
TWA approached Eero Saarinen with the project in 1955. Tellingly, the decision was made by the artistic director of the public relations department – a clear sign of the terminal’s role in advertising the airline. This mandate was even made official in the company’s project commission, which called for efficient ground operations infrastructure that would “provide TWA with advertising, publicity and attention.” Saarinen took the airline’s emphasis on public attention to heart from the beginning, capitalizing on a site that sat at the apex of the airport’s main access road.
With the site chosen, Saarinen began to develop a design that would take full advantage of its prominence within Idlewild. He ultimately proposed a symmetrical arrangement of four curved, concrete shell roof segments, the curves of which flowed seamlessly from the piers that supported them. Each of the four roof structures was separated from its neighbors by narrow skylights, with a circular pendant occupying the centerpoint in which all four meet.
Precisely where Saarinen found inspiration for the form of the terminal remains a matter of speculation. In keeping with the building’s role as the architectural face of TWA, many have noted its resemblance to bird or an airplane in flight; the dynamic upturn of its roof line certainly seems to suggest as much. There is, however, an apocryphal story that suggests Saarinen’s true inspiration was found not in aviation, but in the hollowed-out rind of a grapefruit he pressed down in the middle. Whether the story is true or not, Saarinen never claimed that his design was meant to represent anything physical; it was, he insisted, an abstraction of the idea of flight itself.
The fluidity of the terminal’s exterior was carried faithfully through its interior, as well. The vaulting of the roof shell allowed for a spacious and free-flowing interior layout, almost entirely devoid of spatial boundaries. Every element, whether structural or circulatory, was carried out in this fashion; staircases all curved, and even the columns supporting upper walkways were seamlessly melded into both the ground and the ceilings. Visitors entered the space under a cantilevered marquee, progressing from the ticketing spaces at ground level to the restaurants and meeting rooms above. A sunken waiting area offered a view of airport operations through its immense window, while; two tubular corridors led off toward the boarding gates.
Even before opening to the public, the TWA Terminal attracted a great deal of attention – and not all of it positive. The press was decidedly enthusiastic about Saarinen’s design, heaping acclaim on the building’s dynamic form and fluid interior; the terminal was such a powerful symbol for the airline that even as its budget ballooned from $9 million to $15 million, TWA never enforced cutbacks on the project.
However, while the general public was quite taken with TWA’s new architectural icon, the dogmatic nature of mid-century architectural practice opened Saarinen to scathing critique by some of his peers. His concrete shell, while eminently expressive, was structurally inefficient and required a great deal of hidden steel support; more damning, however, was the architect’s association with corporations and government institutions. He was derided by critics for tailoring his architectural style to the job, instead of tailoring the project to his style. The TWA Terminal, differing greatly from his previous Miesian, rectilinear works and with an interior finished in TWA’s livery of crimson and white, was seen as an unholy marriage of the architect’s two greatest perceived failings.
Despite these criticisms, the TWA Terminal opened to great acclaim in 1962. Saarinen had passed away in 1961, having only seen the superstructure of the building completed. While the terminal established itself as a symbol of the jet age, it was ironically ill-suited to servicing jet airliners; its design was largely completed before 1958, when the first viable jet airliners began to supplant their propeller-driven forebears.
Despite upgrades, the terminal was never truly able to catch up as jet airliners grew in size and number; it eventually closed its doors in 2001, its future uncertain. Fortunately, its survival was ensured by its placement on the United States National Registers of Historic Places in 2005, and more recently by the announcement that the former terminal will be renovated to serve as an airport hotel. In this guise, the TWA Terminal will continue to stand as an icon not only of flight, but of the heady postwar era in which it was conceived.
 Ringli, Kornel, and David Koralek. Designing TWA: Eero Saarinen's Airport Terminal in New York. Zurich: Park Books AG, 2015. p47.
 Stoller, Ezra. The TWA Terminal. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999. p2.
 Ringli et al, p79.
 Stoller, p3.
 Stoller, p5.
 Stoller, p1.
 Serraino, Pierluigi, Eero Saarinen, and Peter Gössel. Eero Saarinen, 1910-1961: A Structural Expressionist. Köln: Taschen, 2006. p63-64.
 Ringli et al, p87-88.
 Stoller, p5-10.
 Stoller, p4-9.
 "History & Design - TWA Flight Center Hotel." TWA Flight Center Hotel. Accessed May 13, 2016. [access].
LocationJetBlue Terminal 5, Jamaica, NY 11430, United States
Architect in Charge