Letter From JFK

Kennedy Airport’s landmark TWA terminal is about to become a boutique hotel. Will the airport lose the last of its architectural uniqueness?

Photo by John Bartelstone and Beyer Blinder Belle

OVER AT KENNEDY AIRPORT, rumors say that Eero Saarinen’s famous TWA “Flight Center” is about to become part of a hotel.

Regarded as a modernist masterpiece, the Flight Center opened in 1962 and was the first major terminal built expressly for jet airliners. It is arguably the most architecturally significant airport terminal ever constructed.

After the takeover of TWA by American Airlines, the structure’s fate was arbitrated between preservationists and Port Authority bureaucrats. As those things tend to go, few were optimistic, but the building was saved from demolition thanks mainly to the efforts of New York City’s Municipal Arts Society. (I was lucky enough to work in Saarinen’s terminal when I was a pilot for TWA Express in the mid-1990s, though by then it was overcrowded and forlorn. Clutches of sparrows lived in the yellowed rafters and would swoop around grabbing up crumbs.)

One plan was for the terminal to serve as a lobby and ticketing plaza for JetBlue, whose terminal 5 sits directly behind it, enveloping Saarinen’s structure in a semi-circle. Terminal 5 is one of America’s ugliest, and could have used the architectural panache. This plan fell through, however, and the terminal continues to sit in state of semi-dereliction, despite some $20 million already spent in renovations.

TWA terminal, center, with jetBlue’s terminal 5 above.

Now, the Port Authority is reportedly close to approving a deal with hotelier Andre Balaz, who intends to turn the building into a lobby for a proposed 150-room boutique hotel.

We should be happy the building won’t be knocked down, but this hotel idea strikes me as an aesthetically dangerous one. “It is a great honor to be entrusted with thepreservation and revitalization of this masterpiece,” said Bala. Here’s hoping he understands what makes the building special, and keeps it that way. The terminal’s beauty is, if nothing else, its continuity. That it’s not geometrically partitioned in the manner of most public buildings is precisely what makes it so brilliant. “All one thing,” is how Eero Saarinen, a Finn whose other projects included the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the terminal at Washington-Dulles, once said of it. The lobby is a fluid, unified sculpture of a space, at once futuristic and organic — a carved-out atrium reminiscent of the caves of Turkish Cappadocia, overhung by a pair of cantilevered ceilings that rise from a central spine like huge wings.

One way or another JFK needs to keep Saarinen standing, having lost the rest of its architectural uniqueness in recent years. I.M. Pei’s National Airlines “Sundrome” is gone. The world’s largest stained glass window was torn down along with the old American Airlines terminal. And the Pan Am Worldport, a.k.a Terminal 3, is being demolished as we speak.

Not every iconic airport building deserves to stay standing forever — Terminal 3 for example, was overdue for the wrecking ball — but couldn’t we put a little effort and imagination into their replacements? The “new” JFK is a mixed aesthetic bag, but even at its best — American’s terminal 8 — it has lost most of its character. Worst of the new terminals is without a doubt JetBlue’s aforementioned, wildly overrated Terminal 5. Let’s dip into my book for a description

“‘T5’ as the carrier likes to call it — is a $743 million, 72-acre structure that opened in 2008 to considerable promotion and fanfare. Inside, the fast-food outlets and shops conspire to make yet another airport look and feel like yet another mall. The Wi-Fi is free, and so is the noise from the overcrowded gates and incessant public address announcements.

“But it’s T5’s exterior that’s the real tragedy. Although the street-side facade is at worst cheerless, the tarmac-side is truly abominable — a wide, low-slung, industrial-brutalist expanse of concrete. Once again it looks like a shopping mall. To be more specific, it looks like the back of a shopping mall. All that’s missing are some pallets and dumpsters. The facility’s only visual statement is one of not caring, a presentation of architectural nothingness, absolutely empty of inspiration — precisely what an airport terminal should not be. Is this the best we can do?”

T5 sits directly between Saarinen and the spot where Pei’s Sundrome stood. There’s something troublingly ironic about that.

And lastly, a nod to JFK’s control tower. In fact the tower is probably the airport’s most stylish structure. Designed by Henry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (there’s Pei again), the tower opened in 1992 and for a while was the world’s tallest. (Bangkok now holds that distinction, though Kennedy’s tower, if shorter, is far more interesting-looking than the one at Suvarnabhumi.)

Here’s a photo of it, resplendent in the late afternoon sun, taken with my iPhone from the new Terminal 4 extension. (Yes I’ve Photoshopped it a little. I like that postcard-y, Technicolor effect.) At night, spotlights illuminate the tower in alternating colors, similar to the spire lighting of the Empire State Building.

The wing, jutting in from the right, belongs to a Pakistan International 777.

And, just an observation…

Is there a jet bridge anywhere in the world that doesn’t say “HSBC” on it? How did this company come to display its colors on virtually every jetway on earth?

HSBC, currently the largest bank in the world measured by assets, is a British bank originally founded in Shanghai and Hong Kong. The letters stand for “Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.”

There’s also a tie-in with the Swire Group, which owns most of Cathay Pacific Airways, the airline of Hong Kong. Notice HSBC’s red-and-white, double-triangle logo. The Swire Group’s logo is almost the same. At the back of every Cathay Pacific jet, in small typeface near the plane’s registrations, it says, “The Swire Group,” and this logo appears also.


A version of this story also ran on Flyer Talk

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14 Responses to “Letter From JFK”
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  1. Stephanie says:

    I have to agree with Eric on T5. I commute on JetBlue a lot and am grateful for several better-than-decent restaurants in this terminal to enjoy a glass of wine and a meal before going home. It may have been overhyped, but it is FAR better than T8, which is an absolute travesty. Not a single good restaurant in the entire terminal 8, horrific restrooms that are too small for the amount of people the terminal serves, and it’s just an ugly terminal. Fairly new, it already appears beat up and abused like one that is 30 years old. I work in it every day and it drives me nuts.
    But with that said…..I hope they do they right thing, whatever it may be, with the TWA building. It is the only nice aesthetic feature of the entire JFK airport if you ask me.

  2. Chris S says:

    while I appreciate the desire to maintain the integrity and influences of the past, I flew out of T7 last week, and after that experience would welcome anything which helps to modernize JFK. I rarely fly out of this airport, and for such an international hub, I’m shocked at how outdated the infrastructure has become.

  3. GlueBall says:

    The historic TWA gullwing terminal could well serve as a bus stop/salon/mini-mall/restaurant/pub/lounge venue. The original “Lisbon Lounge” on 2ND floor should be restored.

  4. Chad H says:

    If memory serves, the airbridges at Glasgow International have RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland) logos.

    As for how, HSBC just put their advertising where they think their customers are. Despite being a retail bank in the UK, the rest of us aren’t allowed into their branches, unless you’re rich enough to be a “Premier Banking” customer.

    They pride themselves on being the worlds “Local bank”, targeting those rich enough to jet off into the sunset, probably first class, and think of the airfaire as a rounding error.

  5. NB says:

    Interesting idea to turn it into a hotel. With enough imagination, it could be the best outcome for the TWA terminal. It’s no longer fit for its original purpose, so we have three potential routes: let it rot, ultimately to be torn down, destroy T5 and redevelop it into a small and unsatisfactory revamped terminal, or re-purpose it. The latter option will be the best, if the design is got right. Just keep it out of the hands of one of the grim large hotel chains.

  6. Eric says:

    JetBlue’s terminal 5 has issues? have you been in the American terminal at JFK? or worse yet the other airports in NY like LaGuardia?

    I purposely fly JetBue because terminal 5 is the best option of plethora of horrible terminal options in NY…

    • Patrick says:

      Are you referring to American’s new terminal, or the old one? My trouble with T5, apart from its monstrously ugly exterior, is that’s it so overhyped. And for the cost… talk about underwhelming.

      As for LGA, I’ll give you no argument there. LGA is one of the ugliest, most overcrowded, and maybe the dirtiest airport in America.


      • Robert says:

        Patrick, thanks to you I made the pilgrimage to the Marine Air Terminal when I arrived at LGA two weeks ago after flying all night. The bus trip was tedious, making me question whether I was going the right way, but so worth it! That gem is worth tolerating the rest of LGA. Thanks for the tip. I also skipped the Clipper based on your recent update.

      • FatGuyFromQueens says:

        Thanks Patrick for stating the truth about T5. It *is* overhyped. It really does look like Roosevelt Field mall about 5 miles to the east in Mineola. Also I bought an apple there once about 3 years ago before a flight. It was such a horrid tasteless apple I can still remember it. I know not JetBlue’s fault.

        I think Delta is at least trying at LGA. But without moving TSA checkpoints to the other side of the Grand Central parkway and then connect to the actual terminals by bridges (with moving sidewalks for the lazy) I don’t think it would be possible to change the chaos at LGA.

  7. Catherine says:

    Edmonton International Airport in Canada has jet bridges that aren’t sponsored by HSBC – they’re decorated with logos from a local bank that says “To us, Alberta is the world”, or something like that. It was a refreshing change after seeing exactly the same HSBC ads in Melbourne, Sydney and Vancouver on the way there.

  8. JoeyH says:

    Were they sparrows? Or swallows abandoned when they were kicked off the tails of Ozark jets and replaced with the TWA logo?

  9. Tod Davis says:

    The control tower at Sydney airport is also an interesting one.