Airport and Aviation Marketing Special Report


Ruminations on the Zen of Terminal Structures

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NEW YORK ( -- I’m home, sort of. By “home” I mean the terminals of John F. Kennedy International, New Yorkers’ airport of last resort; a place with a history of crime, grime and unmet expectations.
But even as it trails behind other New York metro airports JFK is finally experiencing some much needed gentrification.

'Seven Wonders'
When the original terminals were completed in the mid-1960s, they were unsarcastically referred to as the “Seven Wonders.” Between the soaring arch of the International Arrivals Building (IAB), the instantly iconic Eero Saarinen TWA terminal, the flying saucer of the Pan Am Worldport or the largest stained-glass window in the world on the front of American’s terminal, JFK was the last word in flashy, chic airport design. And then it gradually all fell apart, as passenger levels reached capacity and continued to climb, ultimately outstripping the infrastructure. The 220-acre Liberty Plaza in the middle of the infield was torn up for more parking. So were the chapels that overlooked their own grotto. Eastern and Pan Am went out of business. American finally abandoned Saarinen’s woefully underequipped terminal after completing the absorption of TWA in 2001.

Remaking JFK
But the airlines began to reverse JFK’s entropy in the late 1990s, tearing down Eastern’s deserted building with a new terminal for a consortium of foreign carriers, followed by the death and rebirth of the IAB as Terminal 4, a miniature version of Amsterdam’s much-admired Schipol airport.

And this summer, American finally opened its new $1.1 billion terminal to replace the crumbling Terminals 8 and 9. Nearly put into cryogenic suspension during American’s brush with chapter 11 a few years ago, the new terminal is the first one built for a single airline at JFK since the '60s.

Photo: AP
JFK's original facilities were as much about sculpture as they were about industrial design. The centerpiece Pan Am Worldport building was a swooping masterpiece that conjures the idea of flight. Click to see larger photo.

Next up is JetBlue’s $875 million new home slated to be built behind Saarinen’s terminal, which will be preserved as a restaurant or a museum, or something along those lines. (An RFP is being prepared by JetBlue.) The groundbreaking is set for next month, and is due for completion in 2008. (Don’t expect any delays –- JetBlue has been forced to spend another $25 million on temporary gates at its current terminal just to tide over its swelling number of flights.)

What do we want of airports?
Which is to say that JFK is once again the best-tested in the country for answering this question: What do we want from our airport? What we don’t want is a decrepit, overcrowded mall (Atlanta) or a sprawling amoeba with seemingly a dozen different limbs. But do we want a bigger, brighter mall with lots of breathing room (like the new international Terminal D at Dallas-Ft. Worth) or something else completely?

American’s new terminal might best be described as “reliably handsome.” It has the requisite soaring ceilings in the ticketing hall (rising to 65 feet high), an exposed steel skeleton and acres of terrazzo flooring. It isn’t claustrophobic, it certainly doesn’t look cheap, and if it isn’t as inspirational as Saarinen’s terminal across the infield, then so be it.

“Like in everything else, form follows function,” the terminal’s onetime project manager, architect David Brown, told me. “Because you have these flows of people, you need large spaces, and you have to put the ceilings high. It’s obvious in hindsight.” He added, “Airports and the design of terminals are sort of mini-urban design programs, like building a road or a high-rise. There are all these concepts at play, and all the airlines know them.” In other words, it may not be a classic, but it wasn’t obsolete by the time it opened, either.

Photo: AP
The orignal interiors at JFK celebrated a sense jet-set excitement in a world where air travel was perceived as a luxurious and relaxing experience. Click to see larger photo.

Master planner David Rockwell
But is there another way? Maybe David Rockwell will find one. “You’re so unaware when you go to an airport that you’re getting on these many-tonned metal machines when you take off,” he explained. “What are the emotional needs of passengers leaving New York, and arriving in New York?”

JetBlue has hired Rockwell to develop the master plan for its proposed terminal’s interiors (the overall design is by the architectural firm Gensler). Rockwelll and his firm are best known for their playful and theatrical designs of restaurants, theaters, baseball parks and even a children’s hospital, but never an airport. (As fate would have it, he is currently working on the theatrical staging of Catch Me If You Can, the Steven Spielberg film partially shot inside Saarinen’s building.)

As it happens, airports have been on Rockwell’s mind for years. He most recently chaired a discussion group at the Technology Entertainment Design conference in Monterey, Calif., in which one of the younger participants argued that the ideal terminal is a non-one: You should just be able to walk up, walk through security and get on the plane.

I met with Rockwell in his office last month to talk about the guiding principles he planned to bring to the terminal. His hiring, I believed, was symbolically significant –- it meant that airports were ready to move beyond being merely gargantuan people-processors efficiently spitting passengers onto planes after they’ve been sedated by greasy food and shopping. Perhaps they could assume a starring role again in the urban framework.

'New Yorkness' and 'JetBlue-ness'
His approach would be guided by three ideas, he said: “New Yorkness,” i.e., creating a sense of place; “JetBlue-ness,” i.e., reflecting the brand; and “usefulness,” i.e., no frills or empty gestures. In practice, that meant no soaring ticket hall –- because passengers have less and less need for ticket counters thanks to kiosks and Internet check-in –- and toward a “great space" on the far side of security.

Within this great space, illumination will be provided by a giant ring of departure and arrival screens (“What if we can de-escalate the tension of not knowing as soon as they arrive?” he asked rhetorically) and viewing platforms placed in the center of the hall will divert departing passengers away from arriving ones even as they provide the sort of voyeuristic function that stoops and the steps at the Metropolitan Museum of Art perform in the city itself. If any of that sounds corny, don’t even ask about the choreographer he brought in to help discern the flow of traffic.

"What was romantic about that 1960 era was that it was sexy, it was glamorous, it was the Jet Set and you could go anywhere," he said. "None of that matters anymore –- sex is already everywhere. Our sense of style in this terminal will come out of solving problems, and making an airport feel like a sedate mall. I don’t know that getting food quickly leads toward Taco Bell and McDonald's. You could just as easily have sandwiches provided by Jean-Georges [Vongerichten]. When we did Vong [one of Vongerichten’s restaurants], we put in a cafe there which essentially serves fast-food, pre-packaged sandwiches.” (They will undoubtedly have turkey if this vision comes to pass.)

“And the retail, when it opens, will have roll-up garage doors, so it’s more analogous to a market. I look at Union Square Market from my window every day, and I see how it’s a multipurpose space. A terminal is like that -- it’s a microcosm, a miniature version of a thing that exists somewhere else. And making it a mall is not the best solution. I don’t think it’s very vibrant.”

He’ll have his chance soon enough.

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