Modes of Modernism: Rethinking the TWA Terminal

March 3, 2012

Finnish-born Eero Saarinen was a master architect of the mid-twentieth century, who designed some of the most recognizable Modernist buildings in the United States, including the General Motors Technical Center outside Detroit and the St. Louis Gateway Arch. He developed the “systems approach” to design, in which he analyzed each problem carefully in order to find a unique architectural form to express it conceptually. The Trans World Airlines (TWA) Terminal is a perfect example of Saarinen’s systems approach where the concept of flight is incorporated into his design.

A feature of New York City’s JFK Airport since 1962, the TWA Terminal has earned its place as a global icon of Modernism and aviation. Although the building’s expressive form gave it international recognition, its uniqueness is also the cause of frustration for many preservationists searching for a new use for the terminal.

The long preservation journey following its short-lived glory days has been a series of challenges and questions. How do you preserve a building that was designed for a function it can no longer fulfill? What do you think are the broader implications of the adaptive reuse of this building to the preservation of Modernism?



It all began in 1954. The Port Authority, the entity that manages the airport and other transit systems within New York City and Northern New Jersey, announced that each airline operating out of JFK International (then Idlewild) Airport could erect a terminal designed by an architect of their own choosing. Trans World Airlines employed Eero Saarinen & Associates to design the extant TWA terminal, 1956-62. Saarinen intended the terminal to “interpret the sensation of flying” and “to express the excitement of travel” by combining the aesthetics of flight with the functional actualities of the Jet Age. The traveler could leisurely watch planes on the tarmac take off and land from within a space designed to celebrate and evoke the thrill and luxury of 1960s air travel.

The TWA Terminal revolutionized air terminal design and created features that became the staples of a modern airport. Chief among these was the “satellite” plan, in which ancillary buildings radiate from the main terminal connected, in this case, by tubular walkways. Saarinen designed the terminal to address three problems of air travel: a speedy check-in process, the constant updating of flight information, and swift baggage delivery. It was a terminal designed to fulfill these essential functions as well as to reflect the Jet Age. All of the elements of the space have one consistent character made up of curvilinear shapes designed to mimic one another and evoke the sense of flight.

Saarinen’s design concept created a “family of forms” so that the building sends the same message from wherever one experiences it, whether inside or outside. In 1994 the TWA Terminal was designated as a both an interior and exterior New York City Landmark. However, this designation could not save the building from its largest detriment to date – the bankruptcy of Trans World Airlines in 2000. The building was then turned over to the Port Authority, which declared it functionally obsolescent, and has been looking for a program to fill it ever since.

Although the struggle for the building’s functionality as a modern airport terminal became most evident following its vacancy in the 21st century, Saarinen’s innovative terminal has been functionally challenged almost since its incarnation. The Jet Age was a time when airport travel was rapidly evolving. However technologically innovative and intuitive the design was in the early 1960s, the need for greater space, security measures, and growing technology soon superseded the functionality of Saarinen’s design. In the minds of many, the most reasonable program for a building is one closest to that for which it was originally designed. Does such reasoning have much weight when the building’s functional needs so quickly outgrew its design?

Richard Pieper, preservation consultant and partner at Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, believes that “an appropriate program and business model is the single most important thing to the success of the preservation of this building.” He also stressed that “buildings in New York don’t survive unless they have a use,” adding “not everything can be a museum.” But how do we use this building, which can no longer fulfill the function for which it was designed?

Although the Port Authority has sponsored two restorations – one of the central terminal after its acquisition in 2000, and one $20 million restoration of the interior in 2008 that involved asbestos removal – a functional occupancy has yet to be found. Perhaps the most promising of the various campaigns was the 2003 plan to use the terminal as an entrance to the new Jet Blue Terminal 5. For reasons unknown this promising plan, which would have had TWA operate in a way similar to its original function, never came to fruition. Now the TWA Terminal stands vacant with Terminal 5 situated behind it.

There has been a recent call by the Port Authority for designs for a small boutique hotel (approximately 150 rooms) to fill the terminal, which will require new design and construction. Because of the limited space available within the 1962 terminal, firms must propose designs for new construction that incorporate the needed space while remaining respectful of Saarinen’s iconic design. However, there are limitations to such a program. The amount of construction that would respect the TWA Terminal in both height and adjacency is now limited by 1) the location of Terminal 5, and 2) the high water table that makes below-grade construction much more difficult, expensive, and less desirable.

With only so much space to build between the TWA Terminal and Terminal 5, the construction must be mostly above-ground due to the high water table. Ideally, an adaptive reuse design should also take into consideration the relationship between the original TWA Terminal and its view of airport operations. How can the contextual relationship of the terminal be maintained when such adjacent new construction is required?

Although the reincarnation of the building as an entry to a functioning terminal would be ideal, it would also be interesting to see it used as an airport bar, lounge, or restaurant space where the weary traveler can once again experience the excitement of the Jet Age so gloriously expressed in the form and context of this iconic terminal.

With these considerations in mind, what do you think would be an appropriate program for the building?


 - Heather Hartshorn, PresArch



For a virtual tour of the TWA terminal, please go to:



Landmarks Preservation Commission. “Trans World Airlines Flight Center (now TWA Terminal A) At New York International Airport,” Designation List 259, LP-1915. New York, NY: July 19, 1994.

Landmarks Preservation Commission. “Trans World Airlines Flight Center (now TWA Terminal A) At New York International Airport,” Designation List 259, LP-1916. New York, NY: July 19, 1994.

“Resolution Reached for Landmark TWA Terminal at JFK; Preservation, Public Policy, Practicality are Big Winners,” Municipal Arts Society Press Release. New York, NY: October 22, 2003.

Docomomo NY/Tri-State (12 Feb 2011) (7 Feb 2011)


Eero Saarinen: An Architecture of Multiplicity By Antonio Román

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  1. Hello everyone! Last weekend I’ve read very good interesting text by Thomas Heatherwick about “new kind of architecture”. Full article was published on “The Economist” website – you can find the article here: In my opinion text can be interesting for everyone interested in architecture, gardens, etc.

    • Stelzimar says:

      Sitting in the auditorium is a truly spcteacular experience: the curvilinear acoustical ceiling tiles express the sound waves that emanate toward you from the performance on the stage, the warm wood planks complement the organicity of the curving ceiling tiles, and the stadium seating complements the in the round effect of the exterior. This may be my favorite concert venue, next to Symphony Hall.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Kick ass! I can’t wait to check the place out. My favorite part? They pintaed the bottom of the piano red because you could see it from the conversation pit in the living room. I hope that detail survives whatever work they do on the house.

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