Following on from last night’s post, I happened on this little photo essay:

Eero Saarinen’s outlandish air terminal for TWA at New York’s JFK International Airport was sculpted as an abstract symbol of flight.

Now most Readers. knowing my abhorrence for Modernist architecture, would be forgiven for thinking that this post will be a diatribe against this building.  But on the contrary, I think it’s beautiful — for one thing, there aren’t any hideous straight lines and corners such as found in Bauhaus monstrosities.  As the writer of the article puts it:

Unlike most air terminals, which seemed intent on depressing passengers, Saarinen’s not only raised the spirits but also showed that concrete structures could be truly delightful.

And it is.  In the time it was built, I would imagine that its space-age, swoopy shape would be very much in keeping with the age of early space travel of the late 1950s and early 60s.  As the designer himself put it:

“…the architecture itself would express the drama and excitement of travel… shapes deliberately chosen in order to emphasize an upward-soaring quality of line.”

The first tragedy is that Saarinen died the year before his creation was finished.

The second tragedy is that the beautiful building has of course been “modernized” to make it “more efficient”.


There’ll be a parallel essay to this topic on Saturday.


  1. It’s not really possible to get a close up front estimate of the cost of this type of construction because almost every single facet is custom created WHILE it is being built. Look at that wall of curved glass for example. It curves AND leans out at the top. Every single piece had to be custom fabricated as per in field measurements. Same with the concrete in the walls, steel in the ceiling, all of it. Now, if form takes precedent over function then the investors should be happy but at a great loss to function. Walls with multiple curves are very difficult to utilize efficiently. This is an art statement building. I have no problem with it. The owners can have whatever they want, none of my business.

    1. The RMS Queen Mary was bought by the City of Long Beach as a tourist attraction when it was set to be retired and sent to the breakers. After sailing ’round the Horn in a (semi) epic last voyage, it “finished with engines” as they say in the industry. Long Beach then began a period of restoration and modification to suit a stationary tourist trap. The story I remember from my tour of the ship in 1974 was that the man from the company contracted to replace the windows on the deck that passengers could use to walk circuits around the ship in bad weather came on board the ship, walked from the “foyer” on that deck to the row of windows, and measured the window for replacement. Upon delivery it was discovered that only two windows fit, the port and the starboard. All the other windows had slightly smaller dimensions as the deck and overhead tapered towards the bow and stern.

      1. That is simply how things were done. No standardization. In WWII, the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine was quite remarkable – but the Brits could not build them fast enough, and the ones that were built were not very repairable – every machinist who made a screw or bolt or nut on them had his own tools, which wore at different rates so each screw was different.

        When the US (Packard Division, General Motors) started building them, they were better. More powerful, more repairable (thanks to ‘Jo Blocks’, made by Cadillac Gage) the tools matched. And because we didn’t have a few master craftsman building them, nobody knew how to build them except one way – the way the blueprints said.

        1. You just nailed why the Brits had “fitters” to work on machinery, while other Yurps and the USA had mechanics.
          The factories I spent most of my career in had Italian, American, German and British machines. The German and Italian machine parts went together perfectly, the American very well, but all the Brit shafts and bores had to be fitted with files, emery cloth, wet and dry sandpaper.
          We joked all the Brit machines had a brass tag that said:
          – Our Motto –
          Beat to suit
          File to fit
          Paint to hide

          1. You can track the cause of Brit machinery problems back to at least pre-war#2, and probably pre-war#1, I suspect. Management never spent any funds on buying new equipment, or even maintaining the old stuff. The stories of what the workers had to do to make parts for British motorcycles in the 70’s was just stupid. I worked on them, and they were a joke. But, along with the utter stupidity of the management class was the attitude of the workers themselves. I’m guessing the enthusiastic grasp of socialism by them was the genesis of the downfall of Great Britain. Read the book: “Sigh for a Merlin”, and goggle at the lack of interest in doing a good job by the Spitfire test station employees that the author had to deal with. GOOD BOOK, btw.

  2. When I was in 7th or 8th grade my class was taken on a “behind the scenes” tour of JFK airport. This was back in the days when air travel was still special. People dressed up to fly and the old time airlines like TWA and PanAm acted like they appreciated your business. We visited the control tower and the TWA terminal since it was the latest and greatest. Pretty impressive stuff for a poor kid from Jersey. The first time that poor kid flew was about six years later when they loaded a bunch of us on a 707 and shipped us to Chicago for USN boot camp.

    We came away from that airport tour with all kinds of cool swag – airline logo playing cards, junior pilot wings, photos and postcards, and even a small plastic Super Connie in Eastern Airlines colors. The Connie was a beautiful aircraft and I got to ride in one a couple of times in my Navy days.

    They didn’t treat the 12 year old kids fom Jersey or the 60 year old Baptist grandmothers from Fort Smith as potential terrorists I was never too sure about the Jersey boys but in general it was a kinder and more civilized time

  3. I think there’s a balance that needs to be found between form and function.

    I recall my experiences with the new transit hub at the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. It’s really quite a beautiful building, but it sucks at moving large numbers of people (and it connects the Path train system to the NYC Subways, so there are a LOT of people moving thru there. Wide, curved staircases with no hand rails, tile floors that are slippery when they’re wet (and since people come in from outside, they GET wet), angled staircases, staircases between platform and upper level that aren’t wide enough for two people (one in each direction).

    It would be wonderful if it were a museum, shopping mall (and there is a mall there too), etc, where 90% of the people going thru it aren’t just trying desperately to get from point A to point B (and who haven’t seen the place twice every weekday since it opened, so they stop noticing how pretty it is and start complaining about how hard it is to move around in).

    Mark D

  4. Back in the 70’s (lord that was a long time ago…lol) I worked at JFK. I fell in love with the TWA terminal. It actually is shaped after an eagle. The head is a small feature in the front. The red carpeting, curving hallways and hotel lobby like main area are beautiful. The arrival board was classic. And need I say the stews were ALL 10s back then ! They had a great employee cafeteria in the back. Best meatball hero I ever had.

    After the remodel finished a yr or so ago they added hotel rooms to it. Would love to stay a night.

    For folks who haven’t been there you can see how it was in the DiCaprio and Hanks movie Catch Me If You Can. Totally delivers on the zeitgeist.

  5. The Architect gets all the credit for designing all those swoopy lines, but the real heroes of that project are the team of Structural Engineers who had to make that fantastic design not collapse. It was somewhat of a leap of faith in the wonders of post tensioned high strength concrete. …. and it was all done with minimal aid from computers. At the time, computing power capable of doing those calculations was done by renting time on massive University Computers at great hourly expense and 2 day turnaround and the results weren’t trusted until checked by hand.

    1. I heard of an architectural student who was once asked about his design standing up saying, “That’s for the Structural Engineers to work out.”

      1. The Owner of the Structural Firm I worked for used to say “Architects should not be allowed to use anything sharper than a crayon” …… and complain that he didn’t have a big enough skyhook for the latest netball idea. But we always made it work……and charged accordingly.

  6. My favourite is the Madrid airport.

    One of the reasons I like to wander about in Spain is that they seem to do everything with style. There are fewer ugly buildings there than anywhere else.

    1. I’d agree with that – also very swoopy inside and actually quite beautiful in its own way. The high ceiling removes most of the oppressive closed in feeling of most airports, and makes it airy instead.

  7. The TWA terminal was abandoned around 2002 (when TWA was rolled up), and just recently (in the last couple of years) repurposed as an airport hotel. The building was in terrible shape, leaking roof and windows, water pooled on the floor….

    Saarinen’s other signature works, Dulles Airport is still around, sans ‘people pods’ to move passengers out of the terminal to the airplanes. A truly silly idea, frankly: I was a kid when I first learned of them, and saw what a damned bottleneck they would be then, Then there is the St. Louis Arch….which does exactly what it is supposed to do.

    1. You beat me to it.
      I am conveniently located to Dulles (15 minutes), but still need to leave 2 hours before any flight, just to make it through security, get a train, then a people mover and hump it to the gate. International travel into and out of Dulles is only slightly better than Reagan. Just returned from Portugal in late October and it took almost 5 hours from touchdown to walking in my front door.

      I used to look forward to trips, especially overseas, but these days going to Costco is a chore. On the whole, I’d rather drive 6 hours than fly 3.

      1. I am fortunate in that I have to travel around the US monthly, and have my own airplane to do it in. Kalispell MT to Texas (San Antonio, and Amarillo), Nevada, Oregon, Washington St.

        If I wanted to be away from home for half the month, I might be able to do it commercially.

        I’m glad I don’t have to.

        1. I would love to be able to do that. I got my sport pilot license in 2015, but it was such a nerve-wracking and white-knuckled experience I never stepped into the cockpit again. I had visions of buying an Icon A5 and fly fishing my way across the US and Canada. I had the misfortune of getting my instruction at Nogales International Airport, which meant I was constantly traversing Army, Air Force, Tucson International and Indian Reservation airspace. I spent 90% of my time on the radio and hated every second of it. I also think that getting a pilots license at the age of 56 was probably two decades too late.

  8. During a PCS to Pakistan in 1963, our MATS flight stopped at Dhahran Airport, whose terminal had just been completed. It was a stunning design created by Minoru Yamasaki, who also penned the World Trade Center, and images of the terminal can be found on Saudi bank-notes.
    It was told to us that all the sand for the cement in the structure had to be imported since Saudi sand was too fine to form a sufficient bond. Anyway, that’s what they told us.

  9. I think I might have been in that terminal in 1988 or so.

    Swoopy is creative and interesting but how is it at moving people around? It looks rather confusing


  10. When I think of the old Idlewild/JFK Airport, I immediately think of its greatest serendipitous beneficiary – namely, the New York Mafia, which viewed it as a flea market for truck hijackings.

    Until it actually breached the facility and stole around $6-$8 million in cash and jewelry during the legendary Lufthansa heist.

    The late Henry Hill and others tell the story quite well.

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