Sitelines: Air Apparent

After we climb the shaky construction stairs to the roof of a parking garage rising directly across the airport roadway from Terminal 1, I stand in the rain holding my umbrella over the photographer’s fancy four-by-five view camera. Michael, the photographer, has his head under the black cloth draped over the viewfinder. He is, presumably, framing the perfect photo of the brand-new airline terminal, the first to open at JFK in 27 years. Time passes. The rain falls harder. I shift the umbrella from arm to arm. Finally, I say, “Please don’t be turning into Ansel Adams on me.” Michael complains that the view of the building is so boring he doesn’t want to waste film on it.

I’m annoyed, but I can’t really argue with him. From the outside, Terminal 1, designed by William Nicholas Bodouva + Associates, an architecture firm that specializes in airports, doesn’t look like much. The glass-walled curved rectangle of a building – “kind of like a smile,” says Bodouva project manager Charles Kronk – is complex enough that it couldn’t have been done without computer-aided design. But from our perfect vantage point, it’s nowhere near as powerful as Eero Saarinen’s pre-computer-era TWA terminal, to which Terminal 1 pays gentle homage.

As good as Saarinen was at the grand gesture, however, he paid little mind to accommodating the realities of air travel. Over the years, the irregularly shaped interior of his terminal has generally confused passengers, who, in their harried state, tend to prefer simple point-A-to-point-B sight lines. So that’s what Bodouva’s architects focused on, working from the inside out. “We wanted a nice dress on the lady,” explains Dieter Bergt, CEO of Terminal One Management, “but we wanted a good body first.”

The architects also wanted to correct another flaw that runs through the sprawling JFK campus: the lack of windows and natural light. The painfully prosaic International Arrivals Building, for one, is distinguished by long, fluorescent-lit corridors that portend a rendezvous with a municipal filing room, not an idling aircraft.

While the replacement for the International Arrivals Building, a.k.a. Terminal 4, is now under construction, it won’t open its doors until at least 2000. Meanwhile, Terminal 1 will begin receiving passengers on May 28.

Its very existence seems like a miracle. After the Port Authority’s JFK 2000 plan, which featured a spectacular domed central terminal and futuristic people movers, went bust in 1990, Lufthansa, Air France, Japan Airlines, and Korean Air decided they couldn’t take it anymore. Setting aside cultural differences, they pooled their resources, leased the site of the old Eastern terminal, and swiftly built a $435 million facility.

Less than a month before the travelers arrive in 747-size herds, the air in the terminal is thick with plaster dust. Key amenities are indicated only by phrases like brewpub spray-painted on plywood, where, presumably, a bar will soon stand. Where is everything? I’m told that the waiting-area seats will be delivered only days before the terminal opens. Almost overnight, a brewpub, a wine bar, a McDonald’s, and a Genki Sushi (which serves raw fish on a conveyor belt) will materialize. Snazzy information-age newsstands, complete with Internet access, will spring up like mushrooms. And the Perrier-sponsored water walls will magically begin to flow. Instant civilization!

Even if the low-slung exterior is unremarkable, this terminal, by local standards, represents a revolution. The glass skin, designed to bring daylight into almost every corner of the building, even the ground-floor customs area, looks most impressive from the inside. Viewed from the food-court balcony, the main hall is a light-flooded valley, a great open space occupied by the corrugated-stainless-steel check-in islands, which from above resemble yurts. The lofty ceiling is supported by exposed steel trusses. While we’ve seen girders and stainless before, what’s radical here is the very idea that a new terminal at JFK is only weeks from opening and not only is it nice and seemingly functional, it’s got a sushi bar. If only you could fly Air France or Korean Air from New York to, say, Cleveland.

Sitelines: Air Apparent