Artworld: Saving JFK's Old TWA Terminal

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Oct. 11, 2001 at 12:08 PM
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NEW YORK, Oct. 11 (UPI) -- Many American cities and even small communities have saved outdated or abandoned railroad stations of architectural interest for other uses, but only one has yet had the dilemma of what to do with a landmark airline terminal that no longer has the capacity to serve today's massive air travel business.

New York must decide in the near future the fate of John F. Kennedy International Airport's Terminal 5, once known as the TWA Flight Center. It was designed by Eero Saarinen, one of the foremost architectural innovators of the 20th century, and Kevin Roche and opened for business in 1962 when air travel was the convenience of the few, not the necessity of the many.

Terminal 5 was controversial for its time -- a sculptured cement structure that looked like a giant gull revving up for flight, wings just beginning to feel the rush of supportive air currents. Inside there were cascades of stairs connecting a series of levels and tubular tunnels immediately dubbed "umbilical cords" leading to boarding areas.

Modernists loved it and traditionalists hated it. Saarinen had been on the map architecturally, but now he was a household name hailed as a genius for adapting architecture to the new era of flight or criticized for creating an eyesore of which the public would soon tire.

Tire they never did, and Terminal 5 is still considered one of the most beautiful freeform buildings in the world, a precursor of Jorn Utzon's Sydney Opera House in Australia and Frank Gehry's Bilbao Art Museum in Spain. Even when the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport, announced it would no longer be used as a terminal, there was no suggestion that it be razed.

"We're looking for a way to preserve the terminal that will breathe life into it for generations to come," said William R. DeCota, the Port Authority's aviation director.

Since then, the authority has put forward a plan to connect the Saarinen building to two new, capacious terminals for United Airlines and JetBlue Airways which would surround Terminal 5 in a semicircle on the tarmac side of the building. The gate areas to which the old "umbilical cords" led would be demolished and two new tubular walkways would connect the old terminal with the new terminals.

The plan calls for the destruction of nearby Terminal 6, a former National Airlines facility, which was designed by I.M. Pei.

DeCota disclosed that Terminal 5 would be used as a flight museum or conference center or possibly a luxury restaurant and that the architectural firm of Beyer Blinder Bell, a specialist in preservation, is working on a solution. This raised a howl of protest from preservationists who want the terminal to be preserved intact for aviation purposes, if only as a glamorous entry for the two proposed new terminals.

"They want to do the very thing that we try to avoid in landmarks: making them flies in amber," Frank E. Sanchis III, executive director of New York's Municipal Arts Society told United Press International. "The beauty of Terminal 5 was that when you walked into it, you saw through it and saw airplanes. In this new scheme, you go into it and see another building."

Philip Johnson, nonagenarian dean of American architects, backed up Sanchis at a news conference called by the society last month to protest the Port Authority's plans.

"This building represents a new idea in 20th century architecture, and yet we are willing to strangle it by enclosing it within another building. It will make the building invisible. If you're going to strangle a building to death, you might as well tear it down."

Hear! Hear! No one could state the tragedy that faces Terminal 5 more succinctly.

Something must be done to stop the Port Authority from putting its present plans to tamper with Terminal 5 into effect. The Municipal Art Society has no power over the Port Authority, but the City Landmarks Preservation Commission, to which Beyer Blinder Bell's plans have been submitted, is more powerful even though it does not have regulatory powers.

Since the city lost Pennsylvania Station, the grandest of the nation's neo-classic rail terminals to wreckers in 1966, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has been given teeth as an advisor to the city and played a key role in saving Grand Central Terminal from Pennsylvania Station's fate. When the commission speaks, the city listens.

Let us hope the powers that be at the Port Authority and New York's city fathers will listen to whatever compromise the Municipal Art Society comes up with. Time is of the essence, since United Airlines is counting on completion of its new facility at the Terminal 5 site by 2006, and JetBlue Airways could pull out of the project if there are delays.

Stay tuned!

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