Flights of Fancy

The nation's grand airport terminals still make the imagination soar—which is why they’re worth saving


In the 1960s, Terminal A at Washington National Airport bustled with activity; a recent restoration has taken the concourse back to its 1940s appearance.

Credit: Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority

More historic images of National AirportNighttime. The mid-1970s. New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport. We have come—my parents, my infant sister, and I—to catch a flight to New Delhi. To my young eyes, the interior of the Pan American terminal, bathed in fluorescent light, seems massive, magnificent. All around me, the confluence of sights and sounds produces a visceral thrill: the foreign languages, the smartly dressed travelers, the flight attendants in powder-blue costumes gliding to their respective gates. But I am interested mainly in the planes. I rush to the tall windows that rise from floor to ceiling, encircling the terminal, and gaze out at the 707s and 747s just beyond, the sleek, gleaming machines moored in the darkness like otherworldly giants.

That was a different time, of course. Pan Am is long gone, as is the 1960 concourse's glamorous moniker: the Worldport. Now it's simply—and more prosaically—called Terminal 3. The signature cantilevered roof, an elliptical piece of concrete spanning four acres and resembling a flying saucer, remains, but the interior is a warren of security lines—worn, outdated, congested. For most of the frustrated travelers who pass through, the great drama of air travel has been reduced to one magnificent nuisance.

Last May, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey authorized a $20 million study of Terminal 3, as well as the adjacent Terminal 2 (both of the same vintage and currently operated by Delta Air Lines), with the ultimate goal of creating a state-of-the-art 21st-century facility.

Why should we care about the fate of Terminal 3? After all, we have rarely thought of airports as places worth saving. But many historic terminals have been adapted or reinvented in recent years, recognized not just as relics of the past but as viable working spaces of the present. Indeed, just minutes from Terminal 3 stands a wonder of a building that still delights the eye and stirs the imagination, a Modernist classic that coexists with a flashy contemporary terminal, negotiating a delicate balancing act between past and present that might point the way to the future.

Terminal 5 at JFK is the home of JetBlue Airways. Its interior awash in whites, grays, and blues, the innovative concourse, which opened to much fanfare last fall, sprawls out behind one of the most iconic structures of the 20th century: Eero Saarinen's 1962 TWA Flight Center. The construction of Terminal 5 was perhaps most noteworthy for the fact that Saarinen's masterpiece, which had been shuttered since TWA ceased operations in 2001, survived largely intact.

"As gorgeous as it was," said Pasquale DiFulco of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which serves as the older structure's caretaker, "it had outlived its usefulness as a passenger terminal. It couldn't handle the demands of post-9/11 security, including the latest bomb-detection equipment." Lovers of Saarinen's work have feared for its survival (the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the building to its annual list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2003, and JetBlue did demolish original flight wings and lounges during construction of Terminal 5). But the Port Authority wants the main building—the so-called head house—to be used as a public space once more. "We know that we have to find a viable use for this marvel of American architecture," DiFulco told me.

Unlike Pan Am's old Worldport, the TWA terminal has always been instantly recognizable. With its sinuous, swooping lines, the structure is nothing less than a lyrical expression of flight. To pass through it, beneath vaults and canopies, is to be caught up in an endless sense of movement, of elevation. (In this sense, Saarinen owed a stylistic debt to Minoru Yamasaki's 1956 main terminal at the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, where arches and domes still evoke an undulating dynamism.)

Saarinen's terminal is currently closed, filled with scaffolding as the Port Authority completes a $10 million asbestos removal program. The structure could then be reborn in any number of ways—restaurant, aviation museum, office space. In one possible scenario, JetBlue passengers will be able to check in at kiosks inside the old structure before proceeding via the original tube-shaped corridors to the new Terminal 5. Saarinen's jet age structure and the glitzy concourse behind it might seem an odd couple, stylistically incongruous even. But imagine the lucky traveler of the future, taking in both sights—those two buildings separated by half a century—absorbing not only a visual narrative history of the airport but the evolution of air travel itself.

The marriage of old and new is also visible at New York's La Guardia Airport, 11 miles away. Though a great deal of the traffic there passes through Concourses A, B, and C, it is to the 1939 Marine Air Terminal—an Art Deco classic designed by William Delano, a clever composite of circular and rectangular forms—where many airport aficionados like to go. Once, luxurious seaplanes such as the Pan American Airways Yankee Clipper departed from the Marine Terminal. Today, it's the Delta Shuttle. In 2004, the Port Authority carried out a $6.5 million rehab of the terminal, including the restoration of the frieze of flying fish that rings the facade, with each terra-cotta tile removed, cleaned, and replaced. Perhaps it's the Art Deco flourishes, or the WPA mural (a 235-foot-long work called Flight) decorating the terminal's rotunda—or maybe it's just the shorter lines and intimate dimensions—but flying into and out of the Marine Terminal remains an enlivening experience.

The same is now true at Washington, D.C.'s Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. An impressive recent terminal designed by Cesar Pelli gets all the attention, but the venerable Terminal A, which opened in 1941 with a ceremony attended by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, has been undergoing its own renaissance. A full-scale renovation is returning the structure—which combines a Moderne design with Colonial and Neoclassical touches and which features a dramatic curtain wall in the main waiting area—to its 1940s appearance. The former dining room, for example, now the Continental Airlines club, looks just as it once did, with flooring, lighting, and other elements restored.

These days, we pass through airports as quickly as possible, suffering the long lines and flight delays and quick-tempered ticket agents with the knowledge that we'll end up somewhere else at the end of our travels, somewhere better. In our post-9/11 world, we ask only that our airports be safe, convenient, and easy to navigate. If they have free Wi-Fi, all the better.

In an earlier, more innocent time, airports were places in which to linger, miniature cities that weren't just gateways to other places but exciting destinations themselves; the best-designed terminals inspired visitors who had no intention of leaving the tarmac to dream of takeoff and the skies. Many of today's airport terminals, with their high-end shopping and art installations, are striving to be, among other things, great public spaces once again. Art figures prominently—from the sculptures and paintings at Denver International Airport to the giant glass murals at the new Indianapolis International to the colorful mosaic walls at Los Angeles International (LAX), the epitome of retro chic.

Dining is becoming increasingly important as well, and the choices these days extend well beyond the burger or cinnamon bun. Perhaps the ultimate dining destination at an American airport can be found in a jet age landmark: the Theme Building at LAX. Designed by architect William Pereira and opened in 1961, this unusual structure looks like a strange intergalactic being: a restaurant supported by two intersecting steel arches. (Pereira's brother was the art director for the 1953 film War of the Worlds, and images of alien invaders must surely have been dancing in the architect's head.) Following a $3.5 million makeover led by Walt Disney Imagineering, the Theme Building reopened in 1997 as the Encounter Restaurant, featuring cocktails such as "the Jet Set" (gin, Campari, and vermouth) and "the Milky Way" (vodka and crème de cacao), as well as panoramic views of LAX. And sure enough, plenty of Angelenos sans boarding passes flock there regularly.

The Theme Building is classic L.A., as closely associated with the city as any other structure. Indeed, some of America's most successful works of airport architecture communicate something essential or idiomatic about the cities that they serve. Washington Dulles International Airport (1962), in Chantilly, Va., for example, can be loved purely for its aesthetics—its elegant, sloping facade seems poised, at any moment, to take flight on wings of concrete and glass—but there's no mistaking architect Eero Saarinen's understanding of context. Dulles, after all, is the gateway to Washington, D.C., and the main terminal's colonnade is a very conscious nod to the Neoclassical landmarks and monuments that constitute the heart of the nation's capital.

Any architect designing a terminal, then, is entrusted with a great responsibility: to conjure up a sense of place, as well as convey an element of drama. It is a challenge being eagerly accepted by some of the luminaries of contemporary architecture. Richard Rogers, for example, designed Heathrow Airport's immense new British Airways terminal, which occupies roughly the same area as Hyde Park, as well as Terminal 4 at Madrid's Barajas, which masterfully manipulates color and light. Renzo Piano's Kansai International Airport in Japan required a daring bit of innovation: building an artificial strip of land in Osaka Bay. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill's recent building at San Francisco International is America's largest international terminal.

To be sure, many of the new concourses in the world—from Hong Kong to Singapore, London to Indianapolis—are among the most exciting places on earth. And there's no doubting the need for new spaces to accommodate blooming crowds and increased security demands. But no matter how glorious the design, no mega-terminal can recall the spirit, the romance of an earlier era the way the old airports do. Those terminals conveyed the very essence of air travel, symbolizing the splendors and possibilities of the era. They practically called out, "Come fly with me," inspiring a profound sense of wonder. When faced with the prospect of demolition, we ought to remember the fate of the old Pennsylvania Station in New York City—gone too soon and remembered wistfully today. Through the storied halls of that pink granite temple, wrote the architectural historian Vincent Scully, "one entered the city like a god." True enough. But through the Worldport and the TWA Flight Center, one departed it like an angel.           

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