“The purpose of architecture is to shelter and enhance man’s life on earth and to fulfill his belief in the nobility of his existence” -Eero Saarinen
The TWA Terminal was built in post-war America. It stood as a symbol of freedom, fluidity, advancement in architectural technology, and a flight for the era of new America. In the early years of air travel, a plan to expand the JFK Airport was sanctioned by the port of New York Authority. A proposal for building a Terminal City required terminals for each airline company to control and manage the growing air traffic, and for the incrementation of their brands. Trans World Airlines, known for their cheaper than train travel prices commissioned Eero Saarinen, a Finnish-American architect to design this terminal. Saarinen designed a neo-futuristic window into air travel, the very vision of flight itself. The terminal became a powerful expression of its functionality.
A leader among the second generation of modernists, Eero Saarinen helped boldly shape our contemporary landscape into what we know today. His architectural legacy communicates cultural diversity and rapid technological transformations which were fuelled by the end of the Second World War. In his zest and optimism, he elevated the most memorable, iconic, and functional structures of mid-century modernism in merely a decade, making him an architect of the American century.
His vision reinvented itself with every new project and his projects were more relevant to its site and purpose. All through his work, there was always a first, something bigger, thinnest, or unique. There was always a superlative and innovative element to his designs. Saarinen lived his design philosophy and diversity. The influence of this is clear in his most renowned works in both architecture and product design: the TWA Flight Centre (1955-1962) and the Pedestal chair collection (1958). Both with similar futuristic elements; biomorphic, elegant, fluid, and flawless. Perhaps these are the perfect representations of convergence between sculpture and architecture.
“We have chairs with four legs, with three and even with two, but no one has made one with just one leg, so that’s what we’ll do.” -Eero Saarinen
The client accepted the initial design for the terminal but Saarinen scrapped it and asked for another year to produce a new design. Similar to his style, Eero Saarinen regularly reinvented himself. The design work was all developed on scale models. Models from 1:200 to 1:50 were built for testing structural and constructional obstacles as well as to see the spatial qualities, lighting, and other biomorphic forms that prove difficult to study in project drawings. Eero Saarinen put his head into the models and ultimately proposed an arrangement of four seamless roof segments which flowed from the piers that supported them.
Inspiration for the Flight Centre remains a mystery, though critics, press, and the passengers noted the resemblance to a bird or airplane taking flight due to its dynamic roof and interiors. “The fact that to some people it looked like a bird in flight was coincidental. That was the last thing we thought about” he commented when asked if the direct inspiration and concept was a bird flight. Probably for Saarinen it was an abstraction of the idea of flight itself.
The structure features a prominent wing-shaped thin shell roof supported by four “Y”-shaped piers. This roof form evolves from a single continuous concrete shell which also allows for spacious and fluid interiors. The final form consists of four distinct arches with skylights placed between their gaps, eventually meeting into a union of a four-pointed star. The skylights bring in natural light and also softens the visual weight of the concrete shell. All elements, structural and functional seamlessly rise from the ground to support upper walkways and gracefully melts into the ceiling.
Engaging with emotions going on in the building by structural innovations was very different from what was going on during the 50s in modernism. He gave America a thin shell of fluid concrete, 7 inches at the edges to 40 inches at the convergence of the four shells. With no digital formulations of the technical and structural aspects of the biomorphic structure, to the scale, progressive models gave spatial as well as structural assumptions. Construction of the TWA Flight centre began in June 1959. During the manifestation of the most ambitious project in his lifetime, Eero Saarinen died unexpectedly of a brain tumor. The torch of completing the terminal was carried out by Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo. A grid was devised to manage the steel-pipe scaffolding for the thin shell. Then the roof was poured as a single form in August of 1960, and by the end of the year, Y-shaped piers fully supported the roof.
The main structure itself is two stories tall, but contains an intermediate level, joined to the ground floor level by a central staircase. The upper levels are connected by four peripheral staircases. Entering through the main staircase, level one swipes one with drama and excitement of adventure. It hosts the main lobby, ticket, and baggage claim counters for the convenience of passengers. The information desk rises just like exterior columns as a single mass of fluid concrete. These modular shapes in the entire structure transform into greetings and visual souvenirs to the passengers.
Isolated from the main circulation is the intermediate level facing east with a crimson and elegant waiting pit, it has similar features to Eero Saarinen’s pedestal collection. The luxurious vibe makes the waiting and viewing of the aircraft’s extraordinary. The main structure leads into two separate tubular passageways, these tubes are covered in concrete, with an elliptical cross-section and indirect lighting which gives an experience of walking straight into a spaceship. The upper floor spans the ingress and intermediate level, allowing the passenger to admire the structural grandeur. It stands on a café, bar, and private rooms for meetings on both sides. The magic of scale works through the vaulted ceiling.
“At TWA, we tried to design a building in which the architecture itself would express the drama and excitement of travel. In a way, this is man’s desire to conquer gravity. The shapes were deliberately chosen to emphasize a progressive increase in the quality of the line. We wanted a lift ” -Eero Saarinen
Despite the criticism of Eero Saarinen’s inconsistency of style, TWA Flight Centre hosted numerous flights and became a symbol of the jet-age. After closing down in 2001, Steven Spielberg used the terminal as a backdrop to his movie, “Catch Me If You Can” starring Leonardo DiCaprio who walks swiftly through the main lobby.
”The movie is in many ways what that piece of architecture was about. It documents a moment in American history when we were all much more innocent, much younger, and more naïve. We were expressing our joy of flying,” said Jeannine Oppewall, the production designer. She further added, ”It gives you a sense of wow. You’ll never get that back again if it becomes something else.” This statement especially holds prominence for the centre, as in 2011 it was renovated into an airline hotel. The prime fluidity and excitement of the structure remain, it’s identity will always go down as an architectural marvel in airport designs.
TWA Flight Centre served as a window, a look into the future, and a dynamic handmade relic of the past in the 21st century.
Donald Albrecht (Editor):Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future https://www.knoll.com/story/shop/original-design-saarinen-pedestal-collection
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