The Aero-Gangplank and the Avant-Garde

“The Aero-Gangplank and the Avant-Garde” written by Charles Waldheim, was published in Log 46, summer 2019.


Charles Waldheim

The British avant-garde of the 1960s and ’70s is often associated with an architecture of autonomy within a context of new societal, environmental, and cultural conditions. Paradoxically, the prospects for a new British architecture in this era were often illustrated by analogy with the infrastructure of American military-industrial technologies. Among these, the humble airplane passenger loading bridge serves as a case study. Devised, developed, and deployed by American engineers and architects working in quiet collaboration, the architectural significance of the passenger bridge was brought to the attention of architects in Europe and North America by British architects who saw the movable structure as evidence of a long-anticipated emancipation from architecture’s spatial fixity. The telescoping loading bridge was received as evidence of a new mobility and mutability associated with a technically enlightened avant-gardism, a reading that invoked new modes of architectural subjectivity and a new role for architecture as a facet of popular culture.

Photographs illustrating Wayne Thomis, “Folding Bridge Used at O’Hare: Public Boards Plane Under Shelter,”  Chicago Tribune , March 29, 1958. All images courtesy the author.

Photographs illustrating Wayne Thomis, “Folding Bridge Used at O’Hare: Public Boards Plane Under Shelter,” Chicago Tribune, March 29, 1958. All images courtesy the author.

 

Instrument of American Engineering

The first enclosed commercial airline passenger loading bridge was deployed at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on March 28, 1958. The occasion was sufficiently newsworthy to be reported in the Chicago Tribune under the headline “Folding Bridge Used at O’Hare: Public Boards Plane Under Shelter.” 1 The article appeared below two photographs showing the “new gangway” in its retracted and extended positions. United Air Lines first deployed the technology to speed up the turnaround time of flights. While various other techniques had been devised for boarding aircraft from the tarmac, this was the first that allowed passengers to board at the level of the plane’s door without going outside.2 The device was also marketed as an innovation in passenger comfort, as it insulated enplaning and deplaning passengers from the weather – no small measure in Chicago’s winters – although it was primarily developed to minimize the dangers associated with passenger proximity to operating aircraft engines, especially given the recently developed passenger jet. 

The aero-gangplank installed at O’Hare, a primitive prototype of the now ubiquitous bridge, consisted of a telescoping enclosed walkway hinged to pivot at an opening at the second floor of the terminal. The airside end of the “folding bridge” included controls for “driving” it and a retractable pneumatic diaphragm designed to nestle gently against the fuselage around the airplane’s passenger door. A motorized electric-hydraulic dolly carried the weight of the bridge on rubber wheels and enabled a circumscribed 120-degree range of movement across the apron. The first bridge was of painted corrugated metal over a steel frame. The interior was finished with painted walls, eye-level windows, ceiling-mounted fluorescent light fixtures, and industrial flooring. At just over 50 feet long when retracted and double that length when fully extended, the gangway proved to be a flexible, efficient, and cost-effective means of loading and unloading commercial aircraft.3 After its successful debut at O’Hare, the aero-gangplank was deployed at a number of airports across the country, and was quickly embraced in the early 1960s as an industry standard for the new jet-age airports.

Chicago-based United Air Lines and many of its competitors anticipated the need for loading bridges to accommodate the expected rapid growth of commercial air travel following World War II. United licensed the technology for the aero-gangplank from Lockheed Air Terminal, Inc., which had developed it in the mid-1950s based on aeronautical engineer Frank Der Yuen’s concept for a loading bridge, which stemmed from his experience with aircraft loading and turnaround times during World War II. Following the license agreement with United, and the successful debut of the bridge at O’Hare, Der Yuen and Lockheed filed patents for the design of the “aero-gangplank” in 1959 and 1960.4 Der Yuen and Lockheed continued to improve upon the design throughout the early 1960s, including moving the drivable dolly wheels toward the aircraft end of the bridge, thereby extending the range of movement to an arc of 180 degrees. 

The earliest plans for the development of O’Hare in the postwar era were devised by Chicago engineer and parks district executive Ralph Burke, whose 1948 design of the terminal anticipated the installation of “articulated bridges” to provide covered passageways at the second level for boarding and deboarding aircraft.5 While that aspect of Burke’s plan went unrealized for over a decade, the election of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1955 accelerated work at O’Hare. Daley immediately formed the so-called top committee of airline executives to push for O’Hare’s development, and replaced Burke with local architect C.F. Murphy, who was offered the single largest public works job in Chicago over drinks at the Irish Fellowship Club. Murphy had never designed an airport, but he had successfully completed a controversial lakefront water filtration plant on Chicago’s near north side.6

“Airport’s Mobile Covered Bridge,”  Life , April 21, 1958. Photo: Al Fenn.

“Airport’s Mobile Covered Bridge,” Life, April 21, 1958. Photo: Al Fenn.

 
Frank Der Yuen and Francis B. Johnson, assignors to Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. Aero-Gangplank. U.S. patent #3,060,471, filed July 27, 1960; issued October 30, 1962.

Frank Der Yuen and Francis B. Johnson, assignors to Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. Aero-Gangplank. U.S. patent #3,060,471, filed July 27, 1960; issued October 30, 1962.

The first enclosed commercial airline passenger loading bridge was deployed at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on March 28, 1958. The occasion was sufficiently newsworthy to be reported in the Chicago Tribune under the headline “Folding Bridge Used at O’Hare: Public Boards Plane Under Shelter.” 1 The article appeared below two photographs showing the “new gangway” in its retracted and extended positions. United Air Lines first deployed the technology to speed up the turnaround time of flights. While various other techniques had been devised for boarding aircraft from the tarmac, this was the first that allowed passengers to board at the level of the plane’s door without going outside.2 The device was also marketed as an innovation in passenger comfort, as it insulated enplaning and deplaning passengers from the weather – no small measure in Chicago’s winters – although it was primarily developed to minimize the dangers associated with passenger proximity to operating aircraft engines, especially given the recently developed passenger jet. 

The aero-gangplank installed at O’Hare, a primitive prototype of the now ubiquitous bridge, consisted of a telescoping enclosed walkway hinged to pivot at an opening at the second floor of the terminal. The airside end of the “folding bridge” included controls for “driving” it and a retractable pneumatic diaphragm designed to nestle gently against the fuselage around the airplane’s passenger door. A motorized electric-hydraulic dolly carried the weight of the bridge on rubber wheels and enabled a circumscribed 120-degree range of movement across the apron. The first bridge was of painted corrugated metal over a steel frame. The interior was finished with painted walls, eye-level windows, ceiling-mounted fluorescent light fixtures, and industrial flooring. At just over 50 feet long when retracted and double that length when fully extended, the gangway proved to be a flexible, efficient, and cost-effective means of loading and unloading commercial aircraft.3 After its successful debut at O’Hare, the aero-gangplank was deployed at a number of airports across the country, and was quickly embraced in the early 1960s as an industry standard for the new jet-age airports.

Chicago-based United Air Lines and many of its competitors anticipated the need for loading bridges to accommodate the expected rapid growth of commercial air travel following World War II. United licensed the technology for the aero-gangplank from Lockheed Air Terminal, Inc., which had developed it in the mid-1950s based on aeronautical engineer Frank Der Yuen’s concept for a loading bridge, which stemmed from his experience with aircraft loading and turnaround times during World War II. Following the license agreement with United, and the successful debut of the bridge at O’Hare, Der Yuen and Lockheed filed patents for the design of the “aero-gangplank” in 1959 and 1960.4 Der Yuen and Lockheed continued to improve upon the design throughout the early 1960s, including moving the drivable dolly wheels toward the aircraft end of the bridge, thereby extending the range of movement to an arc of 180 degrees. 

The earliest plans for the development of O’Hare in the postwar era were devised by Chicago engineer and parks district executive Ralph Burke, whose 1948 design of the terminal anticipated the installation of “articulated bridges” to provide covered passageways at the second level for boarding and deboarding aircraft.5 While that aspect of Burke’s plan went unrealized for over a decade, the election of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1955 accelerated work at O’Hare. Daley immediately formed the so-called top committee of airline executives to push for O’Hare’s development, and replaced Burke with local architect C.F. Murphy, who was offered the single largest public works job in Chicago over drinks at the Irish Fellowship Club. Murphy had never designed an airport, but he had successfully completed a controversial lakefront water filtration plant on Chicago’s near north side.6

Murphy appointed his longtime colleague Carter Manny as project architect for the airport and set about poaching the best available talent from more prominent Chicago offices, including the Office of Mies van der Rohe and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Manny and his team favored a very different concept for boarding aircraft, the mobile lounge, which was being developed as an alternative to the passenger loading bridge for numerous jet-age airports across the US. Many architects favored the mobile lounge for its elegance and relatively light impact on their architectural ambitions for the airport terminal itself. By contrast, the passenger loading bridge was seen as lacking in aesthetic qualities, subjecting terminal buildings to all manner of distasteful attachments and appendages.

Eero Saarinen, for example, adopted the mobile lounge as the preferred mode of aircraft loading for the sculptural form of his Dulles Airport in Washington, DC. Murphy and Manny lobbied for the mobile lounge at O’Hare as well, but they were obliged to adopt the technology preferred by the airlines and, by extension, the mayor, who depended on the airlines for financing the project.7 Nonetheless, they produced the definitive jet-age airport and the most important innovations in airport design and planning in the second half of the 20th century. O’Hare quickly emerged as the industry standard internationally and was the subject of both popular and professional acclaim, while the vast majority of airports that had adopted the mobile lounge abandoned it as an unsustainable, architectural indulgence. Precisely because of its brute efficiency and obvious technical advantages, the folding bridge was forced upon architects in a situation least able to resist it. Thus the potentially progressive aspects of this hybrid monstrosity – half building, half vehicle – were obscured in favor of a narrative of profitable practicality, at least for American audiences.

United Air Lines DC-8 jets parked at tandem aero-gangplank loading bridges, San Francisco International Airport, circa 1962.

United Air Lines DC-8 jets parked at tandem aero-gangplank loading bridges, San Francisco International Airport, circa 1962.

 
NASA’s Vertical Assembly Building (VAB), Cape Kennedy, Florida. From Peter Cook,  Architecture: Action and Plan , 1967.

NASA’s Vertical Assembly Building (VAB), Cape Kennedy, Florida. From Peter Cook, Architecture: Action and Plan, 1967.

 

Charles Waldheim is John E. Irving Professor and director of the Office for Urbanization at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

Evidence of a New British Architecture

In the early 1960s, several images of loading bridges were published in British architectural journals. The October 1962 issue of Architectural Review covered various aspects of the new jet-age airport.8 In “The Obsolescent Airport,” Reyner Banham imagined the airport’s inevitable obsolescence as a strategy for an architecture of impermanence. While offering a lucid account of the impossibility of planning for the unprecedented speed and scale of the jet-age airport, rather than despair at the impossibility of keeping pace with rapid technological change, Banham found the airport to be a site for imagining an architecture of mutability and change rather than stability and permanence. The November issue featured Michael Brawne’s article “Airport Passenger Buildings,” in which he offered a survey of international trends in airport design, claiming the airport terminal as one of three new building types that British architects were experimenting with in the mid-20th century. It was illustrated with photographs of loading bridges at airports in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.9

By the late 1960s and early ’70s, a number of British architects, including Banham, Peter Cook, and Alvin Boyarsky, were making explicit reference to the “folding bridge” in various publications. Often they claimed the American invention as tangible proof of the potentials for an avant-garde architecture based on change and spatial transformation over time. Equally often, their references were deployed in support of a generalized interest in an architecture of plug-ins, clip-ons, and snorkels.10 In appropriating the prosaic passenger loading bridge, British architects associated a practical product of American military-industrial engineering with social transformation and technological enlightenment.

In his 1965 essay “A Clip-On Architecture,” published in Design Quarterly, Banham locates the origins of British architectural interest in obsolescence and mobility in the concept of indeterminacy.11 He cites American architect Gerhard Kallmann’s essay “Towards a New Environment,” which had run in the December 1950 issue of Architectural Review, as the origin for this particular line of thinking, which would inform 15 years of British architectural thought.12 Equally significant for Banham’s idea of a clip-on architecture was Alison and Peter Smithson’s articulation of a cell serviced by attendant infrastructure. Taken together, the ideas of indeterminacy and cellular elements informed not only Banham but also British architectural interests in the 1960s in general.

In his 1967 book Architecture: Action and Plan, Peter Cook juxtaposed the aero-gangplank with the more politically charged and heroically large mobile gantry cranes servicing the US space program’s rockets. His caption for a drawing of the cavernous Vertical Assembly Building, or VAB, designed for the assembly of Apollo rockets at Cape Kennedy, Florida, refers to the “rocket erection building” as “architecture of the mightiest dimensions already beyond the brief of architects.”13 Linking the everyday airline passenger loading bridge with the Saturn V rocket gantry cranes acknowledged both as products of America’s Cold War aerospace-industrial complex, the technical artifacts of which also came to embody the aspirations of a generation of British architects imagining the liberating effects of mutability and obsolescence, assembly and disassembly. The military-industrial images came to represent the potential of constructivist, metabolist, and other progressive architectural projects stemming from very different cultural politics.

Cook claimed the loading bridge as the logical extension of the psychology of movement and an architecture bursting at its limits. An aerial photograph of the United Air Lines terminal in San Francisco International Airport, which Brawne had featured in his survey of airport terminals, showed an impressive radial array of 10 aero-gangplanks simultaneously servicing five United DC-8 jets at their gates. Captioning the photograph “Movable telescopic corridors,”14 Cook situates the air bridges in an eclectic genealogy ranging from the constructivist fantasies of Iakov Chernikhov (1925–33) to Yona Friedman’s Spatial City (1963) to NASA’s VAB (1965). Cook also included his own Plug-in City project (1964) as exemplifying the emancipatory potential of change over time, both physical and psychological, that would characterize much of this period in British architectural appetites.

In his 1970 article “Chicago à la Carte,” Alvin Boyarsky makes explicit reference to O’Hare’s passenger loading bridges as “telescoping passenger snorkels.”15 He situates the loading bridges as essential to the airport’s logic of mobility: “Open-ended, each with its own characteristic realm of geometry, scale, service and information, the automobile, the passenger and the aeroplane are linked.”16

While some British architects were writing about the potential of the passenger loading bridge, others were making or theorizing projects that evoked or depended on analogous movable appendages. Cedric Price’s Fun Palace (1961) and Potteries Thinkbelt (1964–66) projects deployed radially moving circulatory arms and overhead gantry assemblies evocative of the loading bridge. Ron Herron’s Walking City project (1964) imagined a range of telescoping people tubes equally evocative of the loading bridge. In his 1968 book New Directions in British Architecture, Royston Landau surveyed these and other projects for a new architecture and linked Banham’s question of obsolescence to a more general interest in a “plug-in” architecture.17 While Banham claimed to have developed the concept of the “clip-on” as early as 1960, Cook’s “plug-in,” Banham’s “clip-on,” and Boyarsky’s “telescoping snorkels” seem sufficiently of a coherent set in the context of British architectural discourse of the era. Countless distinctions can be drawn between these terms and the concepts they signify, but these architects collectively found the loading bridge to be a heuristic device for conjuring the potential for a radical new architecture capable of reconstituting itself over time. The origins of the loading bridge, however, were far more prosaic and practical than the cultural aspirations suggested by British architectural publications.

Anonymous International Infrastructure

How are we to read the underappreciated passenger loading bridge today? As much as anything else, one is struck by the utter ambivalence with which we regard the once remarkable device. Yet underneath the bridge’s efficiency and ubiquity, it remains utterly undecidable. Is it a building or a vehicle? Is it a conveyance or a device? The mobile bridge represents the hallucinatory capacity of architectural innovation, masked under the cover story of engineered efficiency and optimized rationality. It is among the most anesthetized experiences of contemporary urban life. Rather than invoking the wonder
of the transition from ground to air, the short passage from architecture to airplane is most often unremarkable and accomplished as quickly as possible. The utter banality of the experience is reinforced by its anonymity and ubiquity. They are the same, seemingly, everywhere. Setting aside the occasional whiff of local flavor, wall of humidity, or glimpse outside, the repetitive, undifferentiated, and monotonous transition between earth and sky has had the effect of masking the extraordinary invention that the device represents. The passenger loading bridge was a radical departure from the dominant paradigms of both commercial aviation and architectural culture, but its potential as revelatory of a new architecture has been lost through overexposure and habitual use.


  1. Wayne Thomis, “Folding Bridge Used at O’Hare: Public Boards Plane Under Shelter,” Chicago Tribune, March 29, 1958, D12.

  2. In 1936, London architect Alan Marlow of Hoar Marlow & Lovett developed an innovative passenger boarding scheme for the “Beehive” Terminal at Gatwick Airport. Marlow’s circular building featured six radiating gangways at tarmac level covered by retractable canvas awnings. This innovation, and Gatwick’s link to London by underground subway (the first in the world to arrive at an airport), enabled travelers to remain out of the elements for the length of their journey, from the city into the airplane.

  3. “Airport’s mobile covered bridge keeps disembarking passengers dry,” Life, April 21, 1958, 50.

  4. Frank Der Yuen and Francis B. Johnson, assignors to Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. Aero-Gangplank. U.S. patent #3,060,471, filed July 27, 1960, and issued October 30, 1962..

  5. Ralph H. Burke, Master Plan of Chicago Orchard (Douglas) Airport (Chicago: R.H. Burke, 1948), 13. Burke’s plan included both renderings of and text references to the new technology in his report to the City of Chicago: “At the loading positions . . . articulated bridges form covered passageways to allow passengers to pass to and from the airplanes without descending to the ground level and without exposure to the weather.”

  6. Charles F. Murphy, “Oral History of Charles F. Murphy,” interview by Carter Manny, June 1, 1981, comp. Chicago Architect Oral History Project, the Ernest R. Graham Study Center for Architectural Drawings, Department of Architecture, the Art Institute of Chicago, 1995.

  7. Carter Manny, “Oral History of Carter Manny,” interview by Franz Schulze, March 6, 1992, comp. Chicago Architect Oral History Project, the Ernest R. Graham Study Center for Architectural Drawings, Department of Architecture, the Art Institute of Chicago, 1995.

  8. See Reyner Banham, “The Obsolescent Airport” in “The Landscape of Hysteria,” Architectural Review 132, no. 788 (October 1962): 250–60.

  9. Michael Brawne, “Airport Passenger Buildings,” Architectural Review 132, no. 789 (November 1962): 341–48.

  10. Banham, “The Obsolescent Airport,” 252–53. See also Reyner Banham, “A Clip-On Architecture,” Design Quarterly, no. 63 (1965); Peter Cook, Architecture: Action and Plan (New York: Reinhold Publishing Corp., 1967); and Peter Cook et al., eds., Archigram, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999).

  11. Banham, “A Clip-On Architecture,” 2–30.

  12. Gerhard Kallmann, “Towards a New Environment. The way through technology: America’s unrealised potential,” Architectural Review: Man Made America (December 1950): 407–14.

  13. Cook, Architecture: Action and Plan, 61.

  14. Ibid., 72.

  15. Alvin Boyarsky, “Chicago à la Carte: The City as an Energy System,” Architectural Design Journal 40, no. 12 (December 1970): 636.

  16. Ibid.

  17. See Royston Landau, New Directions in British Architecture (New York: Braziller, 1968).

Up and Away at JFK

“UP AND AWAY AT JFK” WRITTEN BY EDITOR CYNTHIA DAVIDSON, WAS PUBLISHED IN LOG 46, SUMMER 2019.


The TWA Hotel lobby is daylit by large windows and the glazed joints between the soaring vaults that give the building its iconic form. Photo: Patrick Templeton.

The TWA Hotel lobby is daylit by large windows and the glazed joints between the soaring vaults that give the building its iconic form. Photo: Patrick Templeton.

Cynthia Davidson

 
IMG_2619.JPG
Beyer Blinder Belle orders 3.5 million round mosaic tiles to restore the penny tile surfaces in the terminal, from the floor to walls to seating areas. Photos: the author.

Beyer Blinder Belle orders 3.5 million
round mosaic tiles to restore the penny tile surfaces in the terminal, from the floor to walls to seating areas. Photos: the author.

In the TWA Lounge on the 86th floor of One World Trade Center, Eero Saarinen looks out from the cover of a July 2, 1956, issue of Time magazine, a drawing of his disembodied head superimposed over a site plan for the General Motors Technical Center in Michigan. The story goes that Howard Hughes, the reclusive owner of Trans World Airlines, saw the cover and decided that Saarinen should design the airline’s New York terminal. The lounge manager cannot verify this account as fact, but he does point eastward and declare that from this height, one can just make out John F. Kennedy International Airport in the far distance.

As a crow flies, it is 13.22 miles from Lower Manhattan to Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center, recently reborn as the TWA Hotel. The shortest vehicular route from the lounge to the hotel is 16 miles: over the Brooklyn Bridge and across Atlantic Avenue; a one-hour, one-minute ride, or so Google Maps predicts at 5:20 pm on July 1. (The E train to JFK’s AirTrain takes just a bit longer.)

There is something both genius and uncanny in linking the World Trade Center to activity at the airport. The idea was Tyler Morse’s; he is head of MCR/Morse Development, which developed and operates the TWA Hotel. The TWA Lounge, designed to mimic the flight center’s interior, is a Manhattan sales office for booking conferences, events, and weddings at the hotel. It opened two years ago and became a fabulous (small) party space itself. Saarinen’s terminal was closed only a few months after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the original World Trade Center towers. In 2002 it was briefly revived as a set for Catch Me If You Can, starring a suave Leonardo DiCaprio masquerading as a Pan Am pilot and a determined Tom Hanks as an FBI agent. And then it went dark.

How JFK Came into Being

The first New York area airport was in New Jersey, Newark Metropolitan Airport, opening in 1928. LaGuardia was second,
opening in 1939 and siphoning off all of Newark’s passenger business. By 1942, LaGuardia is overwhelmed by demand, and the City of New York begins planning a bigger, international airport to be built on 1,000 acres, which include the Idlewild Golf Course. The New York International Airport, commonly called Idlewild, opens for air traffic in 1948. By 1961, when Dudley Hunt Jr. looks at the ever-evolving airport for Architectural Record, it covers 4,900 acres. He writes: “What is Idlewild?. . . It is master planning on a grand scale. It is an encyclopedia of engineering technology. It is a lexicon of contemporary architecture. Idlewild has a robust vitality. One can easily be caught up in the feel of it; the activity, the big jets, the flags, the fountains, the exotic public address announcements; all are part of it. People are part of it: school children and sightseers; ordinary travelers and world figures; cab drivers and customs inspectors. To these, Idlewild is a vigorous city, a carnival, a world fair, as well as a world airport. Most importantly, perhaps, Idlewild is a vast storehouse of information on the philosophy and practice of architecture in our time.”1

Idlewild is also the site of Saarinen’s first airline terminal commission. In 1961, the TWA Flight Center is well under construction, its four intersecting light concrete vaults a dynamic contrast to the orthogonal glass and steel terminals serving other airlines. Saarinen calls the terminal a dramatic accent: “The challenge of TWA was twofold. One, to create within the complex of Idlewild a building which would be distinctive and memorable . . . which could relate to the surrounding buildings in mass but still assert itself as a dramatic accent. Two, to design a building in which the architecture itself would express the excitement of air travel . . . [and] reveal the terminal, not as a static enclosed place, but as a place of movement and transition.”2 In 1953 the Idlewild planners had decided to allow single unit terminals rather than build one vast terminal to serve every airline. This results, Hunt writes, in “a building group which adheres generally to the master plan, but which is composed of [eight] single buildings without much relationship to each other in massing or appearance. The buildings represent an extreme diversity of opinion on what constitutes a functional air terminal.”3

On the first day of the very month Hunt’s article runs in Record, September, Saarinen suddenly dies in Michigan. He is 51. Kevin Roche, Cesar Pelli, and others in the Saarinen office see the terminal to its completion, and it opens May 28, 1962. Eighteen months later, US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas. On December 20, 1963, Idlewild is officially renamed in his honor.

The Sunken Lounge features a split-flap departures board by Solari di Udine and a view of a restored 1958 Lockheed Constellation plane. Photo: David Mitchell. Courtesy TWA Hotel.

The Sunken Lounge features a split-flap departures board by Solari di Udine and a view of a restored 1958 Lockheed Constellation plane. Photo: David Mitchell. Courtesy TWA Hotel.

 
01_TWA Hotel.jpg
The restored Lockheed Constellation is a museum piece cum bar, grounded on a faux tarmac. Photo: Patrick Templeton. Top: The TWA logo greets visitors arriving at the new hotel. Photo: David Mitchell. Courtesy TWA Hotel.

The restored Lockheed Constellation is a museum piece cum bar, grounded on a faux tarmac. Photo: Patrick Templeton. Top: The TWA logo greets visitors arriving at the new hotel. Photo: David Mitchell. Courtesy TWA Hotel.

A Flight Center for the Ages

Regardless of the tale told in the TWA Lounge, it is true that Eero Saarinen and Associates was commissioned in 1956 by TWA president Ralph S. Damon to design a new terminal “for a prominent site on axis with [the airport’s] main entrance road.”4 Saarinen colleague Roger Johnson recalls, “At the time TWA started, commercial jet aircraft was still a thing of the future. They weren’t operational. . . . Eero asked me to do some research on air terminal[s]. I went to a number of libraries and checked out architectural journals. Very slim pickings.”5 In “Airports: Building for the Jet Age,” Susanna Santala looks back at the design:

The advantages of a unit terminal, like TWA, were fast check-in and shorter distances from the entrance to the gates. . . . TWA’s striking structure derives from this singular purpose, and from Saarinen’s careful research into creating efficient pathways from curb to plane. The curving concrete vaults shelter a main lobby with an information desk, a ticket counter, and a large flight information board. Several bars, restaurants, and lounge areas named after TWA destinations were situated on a mezzanine overlooking the lobby. . . .
Ultimately, Saarinen planned everything from the building to its ashtrays, creating a uniform environment with shells, wings, and curves at a multitude of interrelated scales. As such, this micro-world of travelers can be read as Saarinen’s adaptation of the concept of the total work of art to the activities of the jet age.

Each hotel wing engages with a passenger tube that links Saarinen’s building with Gensler’s JetBlue terminal, which opened in 2014. Photo: Patrick Templeton.

Each hotel wing engages with a passenger tube that links Saarinen’s building with Gensler’s JetBlue terminal, which opened in 2014. Photo: Patrick Templeton.

Diagrams showing the transformation of the TWA Flight Center, prepared by Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners LLP. Courtesy the architects.

Diagrams showing the transformation of the TWA Flight Center, prepared by Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners LLP. Courtesy the architects.

What the design of the ocean liner was to Le Corbusier in the 1920s, the speed of air travel is to Saarinen in the 1950s. Expressing the excitement of flying in the terminal’s winged form, Saarinen then focuses on the circulation. Passing through the terminal, travelers will barely notice the gentle three-step rises or the slope of the tubes connecting to the boarding areas, each upward motion bringing them to the level of the plane that lifts them off the ground. Saarinen, in 1959:

Having determined the basic form of the building, our next challenge was to carry the same integral character throughout the entire building so that all of the curvatures, all of the spaces, and all of the elements would have one consistent character. As the passenger walked through the sequence of the building, we wanted him to be in a total environment where each part was the consequence of another and all belonged to the same form-world.7

This is not simply the concept of a total work of art; it is also exemplary of architecture’s theory of part to whole.

One part of that whole is baggage. Saarinen develops the first baggage drop-off and baggage claim areas, facilitating departures and arrivals. And he preserves the integrity of the architectural form by designing two passenger tubes to extend from the airside of the flight center to two remote boarding areas he calls flight wings. One tube and flight wing is built for the 1962 opening. No one anticipates demand for the other wing. But the aviation industry is booming. The other flight tube and wing open in 1967; three years later the second wing is doubled in size and extensions added to the north and south sides of the iconic terminal itself. The red-carpeted tubes also become iconic.

The unit terminal has disadvantages. Passengers changing airlines must also change terminals. And an iconic form is difficult to expand. Bigger airplanes, particularly the new 600-passenger Boeing 747, which TWA begins flying in 1970, lead to overcrowding in the sculpted spaces. But the excitement of flying associated with the flight center’s form endures. Until it doesn’t.

In 1990, TWA adds a new baggage handling building alongside the original passenger tube, but in 1992 the company files for bankruptcy protection. As if sensing danger to the flight center’s architectural integrity, even its well-being, in 1994 the City of New York designates the terminal a New York City Landmark. It is only 32 years old, and destined for posterity.

Saarinen’s plastic forms contrast with the acoustically engineered curtain wall of the hotel wings. Photo: Patrick Templeton.

Saarinen’s plastic forms contrast with the acoustically engineered curtain wall of the hotel wings. Photo: Patrick Templeton.

 

The Wild Blue Yonder

Many factors precede the end of Trans World Airlines, and in 2001, American Airlines acquires the company and the flight center. But in the aftermath of September 11, American vacates the terminal only a few months into 2002. After the DiCaprio film shoot, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates JFK, mothballs the building.

Even before TWA ceases operations, however, the Port Authority reviews options for the flight center’s site as part of a JFK 2000 expansion plan. The proposal removes Saarinen’s two original flight wings to make room for a new terminal for JetBlue. This causes much debate among landmark agencies, which deem any demolition an “adverse effect” under the terms of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Much back-and-forth finally results in an agreement to fully restore the TWA Flight Center, without its flight wings, and to link the passenger tubes to a new JetBlue terminal, designed by Gensler. The flight center will be landlocked, its view of the airfield cut off but its form intact.

Beyer Blinder Belle, a New York firm known in part for careful restoration work, is hired to “stabilize” the flight center and prepare the Historic American Buildings Survey documents required to nominate the terminal for the National Register of Historic Places. It is listed on both the national and state registers in 2005. In 2007, the Port Authority issues a first Request for Proposals to develop a hotel that incorporates the flight center and retains BBB to prepare restoration plans.

After the third RFP, enter Tyler Morse and MCR/Morse Development. Enter Lubrano Ciavarra Architects. Enter INC Architecture & Design, Stonehill Taylor, and Mathews Nielsen – all designers of one aspect or another of a new 512-room hotel and conference center. Morse signs a 650-page lease with the Port Authority through 2051. JFK handles well over 60 million passengers a year, each one a potential lodger in the future hotel. Morse is aiming for 200 percent occupancy; in other words, booking each room twice within 24 hours.

Design begins in 2014. Anne Marie Lubrano and Lea Ciavarra turn to a trusted architectural concept – figure and ground – to design the guest room wings. They produce two slightly curved, seven-story buildings clad in dark blue glass to act as a backdrop – as a ground – against which the iconic white figure of Saarinen’s building is clearly defined. Each hotel wing attaches to a passenger tube as gently as a jet bridge to a fuselage. Below grade, INC Architecture & Design creates a conference center with a banquet hall and meeting rooms to be roofed with a new “tarmac.” The design and construction require the approvals of 22 agencies. Construction begins December 15, 2017; the hotel’s “soft” opening is May 15, 2019. 

The two hotel wings frame the landmarked terminal. Photo: David Mitchell. Courtesy TWA Hotel.

The two hotel wings frame the landmarked terminal. Photo: David Mitchell. Courtesy TWA Hotel.

 

Cynthia Davidson, editor of Log, recently reread Delirious New York.

Terminal City

“Perhaps the most difficult part of judging what has been accomplished at Idlewild is the choice of a reasonable position for judgment,” Hunt writes in 1961. “Perhaps a more helpful position . . . would be a sort of reasonable idealism, meaning the kind of idealism of good architects and engineers who strive to do the best work they are capable of, but who realize that there are certain realities involved in getting the job done.”8

Finding a reasonable position from which to judge JFK and the achievement of the TWA Hotel is also difficult. Is it a position on adaptive reuse or restoration? A position on hospitality design? A position on master planning or airport design? Or a position on urbanism? In its daily population JFK is a city unto itself, still the human nexus Hunt described at Idlewild. But its urbanism remains compromised by the original unit terminal plan – separate big buildings, now filled with the faux urbanism of shopping and food courts – and the lack of a hotel the likes of Charles de Gaulle in Paris or Detroit Metro Airport, where hotels are attached to terminals rather than located “nearby.” The hotel piece is now solved, though Saarinen’s tubes connect only with JetBlue. Guests flying with other airlines must take the elevated AirTrain to check in. 

As the life of the flight center shows, obsolescence occurs more rapidly at an airport than in a city. Landmarking an air terminal on a site of constant change can be seen as a perversion of progress. Morse’s lease is through 2051, but the future of air travel and how it will evolve over the next 30 years is already being imagined. Today’s long lines at TSA checkpoints and cramped leg room in coach seats have diminished the thrill of flying, but the form that embodied midcentury optimism is saved, even if what was once “a lobby to the world” is now just a hotel lobby.9 The great canted window wall that once overlooked the airfield now looks into the landside of the JetBlue terminal. But to recall the glory days, a restored 1958 Lockheed Constellation prop plane is parked on the “tarmac” between Saarinen’s passenger tubes, its interior retrofitted as a cocktail lounge. Martini anyone?


  1. Dudley Hunt Jr., “How Idlewild Was Planned for the Jet Age,” Architectural Record (September 1961): 152.

  2. “Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center,” Architectural Record (July 1962): 129.

  3. Hunt, “How Idlewild Was Planned,” 155–56.

  4. Thomas Mellins, “Trans World Airlines Terminal,” in Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, ed. Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen and Donald Albrecht (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 199.

  5. See Susanna Santala, “Airports: Building for the Jet Age,” in Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, 302.

  6. Ibid.

  7. “Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center,” 133.

  8. Hunt, “How Idlewild Was Planned,” 156.

  9. Sandy Isenstadt calls the TWA Flight Center “a lobby to the world,” in his essay “Eero Saarinen’s Theater of Form,” in Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, 107.

Sweet Sixteen Acres

The oddly angled, vaguely deconstructivist entry pavilion, by the Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta, gives no hint of what’s to come: a series of ramps leading down to vast underground spaces, the largest of which, called the Foundation Hall, is so big that massive artifacts from 9/11 – a mangled fire truck, a pair of “trident” columns from the destroyed Twin Towers – seem tiny. 

But it’s not just the size of the subterranean spaces in the National September 11 Memorial & Museum that makes them powerful. Davis Brody Bond, the architects of the museum, labored to keep the everyday at bay. Mundane elements – lights, vents, and speakers – were carefully hidden so the rooms would be quietly majestic, the slurry wall presiding like New York’s Wailing Wall, the Survivors’ Staircase a stairway to heaven. In this museum, the outside world feels very far away. The ground is hallowed, and we’re in it.

The Insecurity Of History

To live every instant as though it were the last – that is the paradox of futurism, of a futurism of the instant that has no future. We might note that it also spells the decline in the propaganda of an endless Progress that, only yesterday, still fueled the history of past centuries. That history is now so wired, so hysterical, that it even claims to foresee actions, the reality of events that have not yet occurred. You’d think that, tomorrow, we’ll be able to construct an actual “History of the Future” – thanks to long-term forecasting. Such micro-narratives would impose themselves on the millennium of the avowed facts, as if the perspective of the real time of instantaneity suddenly annulled all durability. For, thanks to certain software programs and the modeling they allow, the mythology of futurism is even gearing up to renew the myths of our origins and of antiquity.