From Idlewild to Just Plain Mild

Photo: Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine

Trans World Airlines expired in 2001—long enough ago that its red-and-white logo has the whiff of more genteel times. In the middle of the TWA century, travelers dressed for flights, and their families went to see them off and watch the dance of lumbering airliners. The “jet set” was a privileged breed, not a horde of commuters. In 1962, TWA distilled the glamour of flying in a swooping, avian New York terminal designed by Eero Saarinen. The beaklike canopy dipped as if to pluck passengers from the curb and lift them to their destinations. The curvy white interior declared that the airline’s business was speed.

Saarinen’s masterpiece, which has been mothballed for years, is making a halfway comeback. The Port Authority has begun to restore it, but the work won’t be finished for months, and it remains unclear whether the building has a destiny as a food court or just a white elephant. Meanwhile JetBlue has transformed it into a neat little accessory for its new $743 million Terminal 5, designed by Gensler. The new Y-shaped structure reaches towards the relic with outstretched arms and then rushes off in a long leg of gates. Gensler has taken care not to overwhelm Saarinen, keeping the profile low and the form discreet, and allowing a single copycat flourish—a peaked roof at one end of the ticket hall. But a facility designed for 20 million travelers a year can’t be dainty. Forty years ago, Saarinen’s pavilion enacted a daily drama on the empty plains of Idlewild; like Yeats’s swan, it seemed to have landed with “a sudden blow: the great wings beating still.” Today, it’s a small, static thing, dwarfed by characterless behemoths.

TWA is no longer a terminal or even a destination, but at least you can now get glimpses of it from the road or the new pedestrian overpass. Some passengers will leave themselves a few extra minutes to check in at a kiosk in the old lobby and then scurry through the famous tubes that once led directly to planes. Now, each concrete hose spills awkwardly into a second-story antechamber in Terminal 5. Downstairs, Gensler and the branding team at the Rockwell Group have created a coolly stylish, smoothly generic machine for feeding and processing the populace. Those who arrive via Saarinen will get a taste of travel’s lost romance.

Jet Blue Terminal 5
JFK Airport. Gensler.

From Idlewild to Just Plain Mild