There are different reasons why airport terminals become obsolete. One of the main problems in some of the 1960s designs, was their lack of flexibility. And some were just too close to the city centre, like the historic Tempelhof airport in Berlin, which is now a multifunctional exhibition space. The iconic TWA terminal by Eero Saarinen was given the status of an architectural landmark on national Register of Historic Places in New York State, while still in use in 1994. Its souring volumes have now been restored to their former glory, housing an airport hotel in exceptional circumstances.
Designed as part of the JFK Airport in New York, the TWA terminal is the most famous building by Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen (1910 – 1961). Commissioned by the business magnate and film producer Howard Hughes, who was then the owner of the Trans World Airways company, the terminal was completed in 1962. It was an instantly recognisable architectural concept, which represented the excitement and glamour of air travel before the onset of mass tourism.
In Saarinen’s short career he was commissioned to design three airport terminals. The distinctive form of the TWA terminal gained the most attention and became an icon of the golden age of aviation, while also receiving criticism already at the time. Architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner preferrred the more sober and linear structure of the Dulles Airport in Washington, which remains in use in its original form. In Athens the main airport was moved further away from the city centre, but the terminal building by Saarinen has been preserved. Saarinen passed away in 1961 and never saw the finished terminals.
His father Eliel Saarinen was one of the leading architects at the height of National Romanticism in Finland, a movement influenced by motifs found in nature. The family emigrated to America when Eero Saarinen was thirteen. He graduated from Yale, and worked first in his father’s office. In the TWA design, as well as in his iconic furniture designs, such as the Tulip chair, we can see an abstracted and sculptural relation to natural forms, reinterpreted as a result of material and technological innovation.
Saarinen had been part of the jury in the architectural competition for the Sydney Opera House, which also informed Saarinen’s approach while designing the TWA terminal. Behind the bold architectural language of these two buildings there was a complex system of structural engineering, breaking away from the modernist principles of straight lines and plain functionality. Both buildings mark the early phase of an era when computers came to be part of the design process.
While modernist architectural space was often defined through rigid geometries, in the terminal design Saarinen introduced organic relationships and a flow of connections throughout the building. Saarinen was able to use calculations made by computers in order to realize such formal continuity. The spatial organisation inside the free-form envelop made of concrete shells was the outcome of Saarinen’s artistic vision and innovative methods. Hughes as the client – a leading player in Hollywood film industry – surely had a strong influence on the development of such a strong architectural narrative and expression.
Today spatial flexibility is a leading principle in airport design, so that terminals can respond to changing requirements. For the TWA terminal Saarinen had delivered an architectural concept, which could not be adapted with the rapid change in aviation and and the wider aircraft sizes of the jet age. In comparison to Dulles airport, the TWA terminal’s structure was not flexible and hence became obsolete at the end of last century. Although an icon of 1960s architecture, the TWA terminal shows the difficulties inherent in the most sculptural forms of architecture.
The terminal was closed in 2001, and remained empty for sixteen years. In 2015 a privately funded redevelopment started to convert the terminal into a hotel. In the category of airport hotels, it’s a rare example: a unique aesthetic experience imbued with cultural history. There are 512 guest rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows, made with thick glass blocking all the aircraft noise.