Clipped Wings

You have to wonder whether New York City can entrust the most inspired of its few modernist masterpieces – Eero Saarinen’s gull-winged TWA terminal at JFK – to an architect who chews gum nonstop during two hours of discussions about the building’s imminent strangulation. At a recent Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing, as a parade of experts protested a proposal to surround the building with a huge, stiff terminal, the audience hung on the motorized jaw of the Port Authority’s chief architect, Robert Davidson, and speculated about just how long a single wad of gum could possibly last. By the time it finally disappeared – spent? Swallowed? Expelled? – you got the message that Davidson didn’t really have to care or even listen.

The Port Authority, by its mandate, was created to bypass red tape. So even though the proposed design is a steroidal bully, the PA can basically move ahead. Albany has already rubber-stamped the scheme. A decade ago, the box that the Guggenheim added to Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral drum arrested its spin, and now Saarinen’s Brancusi-esque bird, poised to fly, risks being trapped in a cage.

As he laid out the master plan, by William Nicholas Bodouva & Associates and Beyer Blinder Belle, Davidson spoke more like an accountant than like an architect, pitching quantity rather than vision: head count, gate numbers, baggage flow. The existing structure, he said, is inadequate, and the best way of preserving it is to bypass the building with back roadways serving a new semi-circular terminal with spurs. The original terminal, icon of the jet age, would be adapted into a restaurant or a conference center – or something.

As part of a preservation scheme, Bodouva’s behemoth (Beyer Blinder Belle is focusing on preserving the Saarinen terminal itself) ranks with the crushing tower once proposed directly atop Grand Central – it leaves the landmark technically intact but degrades the context that gives it meaning. Wrapped in a 1.5-million-square-foot collar, the existing 374,000-square-foot TWA building would no longer look out at the ballet of 747s shuttling on pointe across the tarmac. By shunting passengers to the back terminal, the architects would turn Saarinen’s building from a gateway whose swooping forms choreograph the movement of people from land to air into a vestigial appendage.

Davidson emphasized the Port Authority’s openness to criticism by showing how the plan incorporates the original terminal’s tentacular tubes, omitted from a first scheme. But it’s a token gesture, particularly given that the PA has not gone out of its way to solicit public opinion, holding its hearing at a remote Ramada at JFK. There, the statement of intent for the preservation of the building was presented as a faitaccompli, even though the hearing was legally required as a prerequisite to writing it.

But these questions of preservation and institutional honesty only lead to a more serious issue: Why not aspire to an addition that takes Saarinen’s ideas to a higher plane? Architects must have learned something since the terminal’s completion in 1962, especially now that many of them are using the same software that has revolutionized aeronautical design. (Frank Gehry’s practice radically changed when he imported the French program catia, used to design the Mirage jet, which would look right at home in Saarinen’s aerodynamic terminal.) Though the proposed scheme is still only a diagram, its wagon-wheel organization reveals a misguided, unyielding symmetry without the suppleness to deal with the airport’s asymmetries. That the plan is boringly conventional doesn’t mean it’s practical: The wide footprint actually gobbles up potential gate space.

Bodouva, who was hired by United Airlines for a plan that was then vastly extended by the PA, tried several alternative designs, but all bypass the 1962 terminal and use the same lumbering language. One untested approach may lie in Saarinen’s original forms. A student of sculpture, the architect revolutionized the perception of modernism as rigid, soulless, and abstract with his curvilinear, organic designs. The sinuous terminal, breathtakingly portrayed in photographs by Balthazar Korab and Ezra Stoller now on display at the Municipal Art Society, obviously connotes birds and flight. But there are also dendritic shapes out back in its two existing departure pods – slated for demolition under the current plan – and such fluid forms suggest a flexibility that escapes Bodouva’s stolid Euclidean geometries. Many of the architects who today are designing directly with the computer have been fascinated with the TWA terminal, and they are heirs to Saarinen’s organic model.

The oafish design being proposed must be reconceived top to bottom: TWA can’t be isolated as an object but has to be lived in – arrived at, walked through, flown from. That this diagram has gotten so far points out that something is wrong with the Port Authority’s process. The Landmark shearing, the MAS show, and hundreds of outraged letters e-mailed to the modernist preservation society Docomomo all alert us to the fact that the PA has been caught trying to fob off a very large and expensive ($1.2 billion) lemon.

The design’s quality also raises the question of how the PA chooses architects. Placing a single ad in the New YorkTimes, the Newark Star-Ledger, and Engineering News Record hardly qualifies as an attempt to attract the likes of Santiago Calatrava, Thom Mayne, William Pedersen, Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, Coop Himmelblau, or Zaha Hadid, all of whose buildings swoop and fly. The nation’s landlord, the General Services Administration, has reinvented itself with a Design Excellence program that requires architectural selection and peer review, eliminating any whiff of cronyism. (William Bodouva was once a PA in-house architect, and Sheldon Wander, a former PA chief architect, is now senior vice-president at the firm.) And if the GSA proposals aren’t good, the architects return to the drawing boards. It’s time for the PA to institute a similar system.

The agency has recently made an effort to upgrade its standards, hiring Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design Terminal 4 at JFK. However, SOM and the other firms on its airport list are extremely safe choices, and increasingly Bodouva has become its knee-jerk architect. Forty years ago, TWA and the Port Authority hired Saarinen; the PA should honor its own architectural prescience – and Saarinen’s work – with an equally inspired sequel.

TWA Terminal
JFK Airport
Eero Saarinen
Proposed renovation and expansion by William Nicholas Bodouva & Associates.

Clipped Wings