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Name   TWA Terminal
Architects   SAARINEN, EERO
Date   1962
Address   New York, USA
Floor Plan    

If it is true that ‘form follows function’ as the great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan proposed, then no two buildings should ever look alike, because no two functional situations are ever exactly alike. Most of the architects who have honoured Sullivan’s precept have, in retrospect, appeared more concerned with making buildings look functional than be functional, and the evolution of a Functionatist Style meant that say, in the guise of the International Style they looked more alike than different. When an architect comes along whose style changes with changing functions, he tends to make the critics and pundits nervous, especially if the changing styles are conspicuously different, as with Eero Saarinen.

 Famous son of famous father (Bliel Saarinen who transferred from Finland to the USA in the Twenties) he first practised an obviously Functionalist style, closely modelled on the work of Mies van der Rohe - very closely indeed in the buildings for General Motors at Warren, Michigan, - and then veered off into more and more idiosyncratic styles-for-the-job as his short career continued. Along the way, and in two different styles, he created the only two airport buildings of the post-war years that really stand out from the enormous number of passenger terminals and the like that have been put up in the last quarter century.

One of them, for TWA at Kennedy Airport. New York, captures better than any other the favour of the high period of ‘the Romance of Air Travel’ and was meant to, The other, the single unified structure that houses all passenger services at Washington/Dulles grapples with the first intimations of airport problems to come.

TWA is now, if grudgingly, conceded to be as competent and imaginative n solution to the problems of the day (the late Fifties) as any architect ever achieved, plus a striking symbol of jet-age glamour. One says plus because the relation between function and symbol isn’t all that clear. The earliest version of the design had a rectangular plan, much of which seems to survive in the basement areas of the terminal; the vaulted superstructure, the so-called ‘Bird’ form, was designed later, after Saarinen had been to help judge the competition for the new Sydney Opera House, and there are some striking similarities between Jorn Utzon’s vaulted shapes for Sydney and Snarinen’s for TWA.

Be that as it may, the combination has always worked better than all the other terminals at Kennedy, and is graced by some subtle touches: that are not pure styling or just aesthetic fancies. Thus the elevated passageways from the main building to the embarkation lounges are blind, slightly arched tunnels in the air; being blind they don’t confuse you with the sight of all the other aeroplanes that are not the  one you're hurrying to catch, and being arched they offer a marginally more interesting and thus less anxious walking experience than if they were flat.

But it is still » a fixed passageway, and the problem of such ever-longer ‘fingers’ reaching out further and further into the airfield to deal with more and more. bigger and bigger airliners, caused Saarinen and his advisors at Dulles to try a more radical solution. Everything that could be concentrated was concentrated, into a single monumental space under the huge hanging roof of the terminal. But instead of connecting this to the embarkation lounges by fixed passageways, they decided to put the embarkation lounges on wheels and let them cruise, ponderously, like vast motorised  covered-waggons, from the terminal to wherever the aircraft were parked. The present author, who has never missed a plane, has nevertheless contrived to miss the departure of one of the Dulles lounges!

In the form of the grand old British airport bus the solution is not new. The airport bus however, is a half-thought expedient whose discomforts are depressing: the Dulles lounges are properly designed for their job and — like the TWA tunnel-in-the-air -  both interesting and reassuring. Of course, Dulles is not perfect and the experience of incoming Customs is the same kind of plastic Kafka-esque trauma as anywhere else, but it is suspiciously nearly perfect.
Suspiciously, because airports have proven to be the most transitional and transient building types of our time, always unfinished, always out of date. Did Saarinen try to impose a final functional form on a process that ought to have been let run wild? Or could it be that the Romance of Air-travel has withered and the end of the Great Jet Adventure ix in sight?


Banham R. Age of the Masters: A Personal View of Modern Architecture. Harper & Row., 1975. P. 122-125.



Kornel Ringli, Designing TWA: Eero Saarinen's Airport Terminal in New York, Park Books , 2015

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