Mark Lamster | Essays

Terminal City: I.M. Pei & Philip Johnson at JFK

terminal6pei pjunionterminal

There was a time — and this seems almost preposterous now — that the airport was a destination in itself, a place that promised the sexy modern lifestyle of the jet age. At an airport, you were going someplace — if not overseas than perhaps to some nearby hot-sheet with a swinging Braniff brunette in Pucci. (Score!) Joe Baum brought flaming food tableside at the Newarker, precursor to the Four Seasons. Raymond Loewy streamlined the so-chic cafes at Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal. It was quite a moment. And then the future happened. I.M. Pei's terminal for National Airlines at JFK [above left] came at the end of this romantic era.

I spent many hours in it as a kid, waiting for flights to visit my grandmother in Miami. (National was big in the NY-Florida trade.) It's a terminal for high traffic, and designed as such, with arrivals sent down below and departures in the signature upper space, a broad open room with glass walls and massive round columns outside. It's a great building: technologically innovative, dramatic to be in. At least it used to be. (It's not what it once was.) And now the Port Authority claims it's no longer capable of handling JFK's traffic, and they'd like to tear it down. Preservationists are giving them a fight. I hope they can find a way to integrate it into whatever comes next.

Pei himself seems fatalistic about its future. "Like all things, buildings never remain forever," he told me. It was his first and only air terminal, and a significant commission, as he won it in a competition, an affirming moment. "That was important in my life." Philip Johnson also submitted to that competition. His proposal [above right], called for a massive open concourse (he called it the "Great Room") covered by a wavy concrete roof engineered by Lev Zeitlin. Unlike Pei, he intentionally chose not to segregate arrivals and departures, instead dumping them all into one chaotic space. "I am glad the genius who designed the Grand Central Station [sic] lets me come from the train into the same Great Room where others are about to en-train," he wrote. "What good is a great getaway room if the visitor is not to see it?" A nice idea in theory, perhaps, but one can only imagine the carnage. The right design won the competition. Now it deserves a reprieve.

Posted in: Architecture

Jobs | July 13