The Modernist Architecture at JFK Airport in NYC – New York Design Agenda


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The Modernist Architecture at JFK Airport in NYC


The crown jewel of John F. Kennedy Airport’s architecture is the landmarked TWA Flight Center, but other Modernist buildings at the airport have not been preserved or will soon be lost. While the public is undeniably drawn by a personal connection to these locations, or the history that has taken place within their walls, the criteria for preservation requires more.

The Eero Saarinen-designed terminal was saved from the wrecking ball in part through the efforts of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The organization later highlighted the terminal as one of the 24 most inspiring preservation stories in the 24 years.

TWA-Flight-Center_JFK-Airport_New-York-CityThe I.M. Pei-designed Terminal 6 at JFK was not nearly as fortunate. Designed as an exercise in restraint with an aim towards transparency, the architect sought to “create an environment for travelers that was serene, generous, clear, spacious, simple and dignified,” according to Henry N. Cobb, from Pei Cobb Freed & Partners in New York.


Most recently, Worldport Terminal has risen to the spotlight after it landed on the 2013 11 Most Endangered Places List. Delta vacated the space for a new extension in Terminal 4 at the end of May. By mid June, Delta was about to commence initial demolition activities and most of the removable interior structures were gone.

Delta wants to use the space as aircraft parking. Preservationists are calling for its reuse, citing its iconic saucer shape architecture and its historic moments (the first home of the Boeing 707 and where The Beatles arrived in America in 1964). The preservationists are joined by travelers and New York residents, who recall the former Pan-Am terminal as a symbol of the Jet Age.

It may seem odd that airline companies themselves, which disappear faster than the architecture they build, can make decisions about historic places. At JFK Airport Delta is in charge of Worldport.

The TWA Flight Center. More photos here.

Another reason for the lack of institutional support around Worldport relates to the extensive modification of interior spaces by the airlines. One question on the review checklist for National Register Nominations is “Have alterations (if any) been adequately described? Has the evaluation of their impact on the integrity been made?” By all accounts, this terminal never really worked very well, as Paul Goldberger astutely noted in his recent piece in Vanity Fair. Changes were made within a few years after the building was finished to improve functionality.

In the on-going battle between development and preservation at JFK Airport, Modernist architecture is losing out. While progress has been made in the adaptive reuse of TWA Flight Center into a hotel, it seems unlikely that Worldport will be saved. Will there ever be another movement towards iconic architecture in airports? Maybe when form can become compatible with airport functionality again, or when we realize that efficient, generic architecture does not a world-class city make.


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