To coincide with our exhibition Terminal, we invited five writers to deliver requiems for an airport. Of course, the event was postponed due to Covid-19, but it finally happened at our Tuatara Open Late in December. Better late than never. Today, we share Melissa Laing’s requiem for New York’s ill-fated TWA terminal.
It’s 1956 and Finish-American architect Eero Saarinen has just been commissioned to design the TWA Flight Centre at Idlewild Airport in New York. Twin-propeller planes are still ferrying passengers across the continent and the Atlantic. They’ve only just invented coach class. It’s an untapped market, as opposed to the economic base of an airline.
Idlewild is in the middle of being built. Its vision: a terminal city. The airport complex itself is only eight-years old, its runways laid where a golf course and summer hotel used to be in Queens.
TWA is one of America’s leading carriers and has been invited to be one of Idlewild’s cornerstone tenants. Seizing the opportunity, TWA wants to create an era-defining terminal that captures the spirit and imagination of flight. A monument to their success and a beacon for their aspirations for the future.
Saarinen is an architect who has been establishing his reputation with striking and sometimes difficult-to-construct buildings that reify their purpose in their form. But he’s also a trained sculptor, interested in form and volume, so it’s plausible that, while describing the shape he wants to achieve, he would turn his breakfast grapefruit over and press on its empty skin. The form that distorts around the pressure of his fingers is considered an early prototype for the building.
The completed TWA terminal is immediately iconic. The poured concrete roof is caught in mid swoop. Its white penny-tiled interior scribes a series of spatial curves that are accented by pools of red carpet covered with custom furniture. An angled bank of windows looks out onto the planes as they take off, centring the spectacle of flight. This, it says, is the future.
It’s tempting to be nostalgic for the era of aviation the Saarinen terminal was designed for. A time when people dressed up to fly and the fiction of frictionless flight seemed almost a reality. But from a distance we forget that it was an era when the cost of flight acted to filter out those who weren’t well off, and a culture of segregation coupled with immigration prejudices kept the terminal and the plane pretty damn white.
Shifting politics and the dropping cost of flights changed part of this, democratising economic access. But, at the same time, a security culture emerged in response to a rash of plane hijackings. Passenger profiling became a thing in the 1960s, and mandatory security screening came with the 1970s. As the hijackings became political rather than economic, the profiling and screening became more and more targeted to the perceived ethnicity and religious affiliation of passengers.
Saarinen never gets to see any of this. He never experiences his terminal’s success. It’s one of ten major commissions that are completed after his death in 1961. But then, he also doesn’t have to face its failure. Between 1959, when the design is signed off, and 1962, when it opens, the damn thing has become too small.
They asked him to design a terminal projecting a steady, slow growth of passengers that would reach 2,000 people per hour by 1970. However, the airline is already hitting those numbers in 1962. By 1967, the TWA terminal, at the now renamed John F. Kennedy Airport, has become notorious for its delays, with planes sitting on the tarmac unable to disgorge the passengers for up to ninety minutes. The aspiration of the architecture is lost behind the reality of the experience.
Then TWA starts to struggle. The American airline industry changed its regulations in 1978, and, in the ensuing free-for-all of mergers and route-grabbing, TWA ended up with debt it could never quite shake. For the next twenty-two years, the Saarinen terminal grinds on, over capacity, with tacked-on modules to handle the changing technological demands, and TWA slowly crumbles, going bankrupt for the last time in January 2001.
This isn’t the end of the building though. While Saarinen is on record saying it would make a beautiful ruin, the New York architectural societies were not on board with that and secured its protection in 1994, leaving the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey with a small problem. They couldn’t knock it down but it wasn’t fit for purpose. So they loaned it out instead. Receiving hundreds of requests a year.
The Catch Me If You Can film crew took it over for a week in 2002, ripping out everything that was not original, to shoot two pivotal scenes for the movie. And, in 2003, the airport accepted a proposal from a twenty-six-year-old independent curator Rachel K. Ward. She put forward the idea of an exhibition in the terminal taking its name from the site, Terminal 5.
As the Terminal show we are standing in at City Gallery demonstrates, there’s something about the conflict between an airport’s aspiration and its reality. The airport borrows wonder from the technological achievement of heavier-than-air flight and appropriates the romance of travel from its destinations, yet is somehow grindingly boring. It speaks to freedom of movement, yet surveils and controls its passengers, and it calls into physical being an ‘outside’ in the centre of the country that is entirely conceptual yet utterly solid. As an artist there’s so much to work with.
The curator, Ward, leveraged the architectural cachet of the building and the complex socio-political realities and imaginings that played out in its concourses to secure the participation of some significant artists. She got major works by Dan Graham and Jenny Holzer. Ryoji Ikeda illuminated the flight-wing tubes with light and sound. She almost got late-1990s art darling Vanessa Beecroft across the line. She wanted to present one of her infinitely problematic live tableaus of nearly naked black women in chains, but the Port Authority said no.
Other artists occupy the gift shop to sell ironic takes on duty free. Baggage is made for the carousel. Posters are designed to riff off the 1960s fantasy of flight. But the show doesn’t quite hold itself against the weight of the building, and opening night turns into one of those parties where people get drunk, write what they think on the walls, and, in what they think is wit, write on the walls. Then, in what they think is adventure, open doors onto the runway. And it turns out that, post 9/11, aviation authorities just don’t have a sense of humour. They simply cancel the show. The building continues to sit empty, as a newer, larger terminal for America’s leading budget airline Jet Blue is constructed behind it, cutting off its line of sight to the runway.
But the Port Authority is still seeking a solution, not satisfied with a building-sized monument simply taking up space. And, in 2018, they secure a partnership with a developer to build a hotel, with the restored TWA Flight Centre as its foyer, bar area, and rationale for a mid-century-modern décor, complete with period snacks in the minibar and the letters TWA tiled into the base of its infinity pool. Where the Terminal 5 exhibition flirted with nostalgia, the hotel is all in, selling a fantasy of what flying was supposed to have been—sexy, glamorous, elegant, exciting—coupled with the comfort of staying in one place and having a full-sized bed.
I remember when I read about its opening in May 2019, wondering where has the imagining of the future gone? As this thought crosses my mind, it’s only seven months before everything changes. And so we come full circle, to a new building that is the wrong size for the changing industry it is in. Only this time too big. And we come full circle to an international aviation industry that’s flying at the frequency it did in the 1960s.
We don’t quite know yet what this snapback to a mid-century mobility will mean. We can only see the beginnings of how our security and profiling patterns might adjust, which inequities will emerge, and what administrative borders will be called into being, to be made concrete, and where and what buildings will be needed. All I can say is we need to step carefully as we go into the future. If we wallow in nostalgia, we’ll let the romanticism of an idea take us to an ill-fitting solution.
Melissa Laing is an artist, curator, and theorist. Her PhD, from the University of Sydney, addressed the legal, social, and architectural frameworks of international aviation through the lens of contemporary art.