VOL. MMXIII..No. 209

Design We Love | The Badass and the Beautiful

Somewhere in Time: Eero Saarinen’s Soaring Symphony to Air Travel

 

 

 

When the TWA Terminal was dedicated 54 years ago this weekend on May 29, 1962, it was in honor of the man for whom the airport was eventually named, President John F. Kennedy, who’s Birthday is also on that day.

 

A futuristic airport terminal couldn’t have been a better gift — not counting of course, having Marilyn Monroe sing  “Happy Birthday Mr. President,” which she so famously did just ten days earlier.


{ “For Saarinen the future of design was about volume and soaring organic shapes that express movement – in this case, travel.” }


In the world of commercial architecture, the TWA Terminal has managed to remain one of the most iconic in the world even long after it failed to be relevant as an operational terminal.

 

May 29, 1962 TWA terminal courtesy AP

 

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Two views of the central hall of the TWA terminal, in photos from just after its opening on May 29, 1962.

Even with its very 1960’s science fiction modernism, the terminal continues to inspire designers everywhere simply because it is so synonymous with a time when traveling was sexy and oh-so modern.

 

As we all know, that has very much changed. There is nothing about those two words that describe air travel today.


{ “The bold, terminal design helped catapult TWA’s reputation to new heights, an airline which for years was always second to Pan Am in the Sexy Airline department.” }


When architect Eero Saarinen first approached the project, his vision was to use the minimum of materials to span the maximum of space and create an environment that created excitement and anticipation.

 

For Saarinen the future of design was about volume and soaring organic shapes that express movement – in this case, travel.

 

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Eero Saarinen’s goal was to use the minimum of materials to span the maximum of space creating a cathedral to air travel never before seen. In the center of the hall, the information desk, itself a sculptural element.

The lightness of the structure is precisely what makes it so mesmerizing. It is sinuous and beckoning, with ribbons of gleaming concrete and terrazzo merging with seamless floors and walls.

 

The bold, terminal design helped catapult TWA’s reputation to new heights, an airline which for years was always second to Pan Am in the Sexy Airline department.

 

Saarinen knew this which is why he intentionally made the interior a symphony of the brand’s signature scarlet red and white, and chock full of relatively new innovations like baggage carousels, a massive, electronic schedule board, and three food and beverage lounges located away from the actual departure gates.

 

The curving wall-to-wall (and sometimes wall-to-ceiling) red carpet made every passenger feel like they were getting the “red carpet” experience. And of course who can forget that seemingly endless concourse tunnel, with its glowing white walls and ceiling, and signature red carpet. It was like some bizarre birth canal, a passage through time; a movement from one world to another.

 

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Saarinen made the interior experience distinctly TWA with its signature red carpet. The iconic tunnel to departures created anticipation and excitement for the departure experience.

Today the terminal, while landmarked, has already been partially demolished and its future is to be a hotel.

 

But we all know what happens when places designed for one client and one purpose is forced into serving a new purpose. Plenty opposed this bastardization, most notably Philip Johnson, who in 2001 publicly spoke out against it.


{ “If you’re going to strangle a building to death, you might as well tear it down.” — Philip Johnson, 2001 }


“This building represents a new idea in 20th-century architecture,” said Johnson, to a committee of architects and Port Authority officials.

 

“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.”

 

While I agree with Johnson, we can only hope that this magnificent structure will still find a way to fly.

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