Gateway to the City

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The Gensler-designed T5 terminal peeks out from behind the Saarinen icon
The Gensler-designed T5 terminal peeks out from behind the Saarinen icon Credit: Copyright Prakesh Patel for Gensler

JetBlue's tenets of efficiency and customer service were built into its new $743 million Terminal 5 at New York's Kennedy Airport, slated to open October 22. Architecture firm Gensler designed the fan-shaped terminal's 26 gates, three concourses and the central retail and concessions space, the Marketplace, to be a deferential neighbor to Eero Saarinen's iconic 1962 TWA terminal. Architecture and design firm Rockwell Group designed the Marketplace interior, with an eye to facilitating the smooth flow of arriving and departing passengers through the terminal's central hub, where Jet Blue expects traffic to nearly match all of LaGuardia's. The firm's founder David Rockwell talks about how Gensler's architecture, the rhythms of New York City, urban theory and choreography influenced the T5 Marketplace interior design.

How did you integrate JetBlue's brand idea into this physical space?

Having flown JetBlue, I was impressed with the little details, like the coffee cup that had a top and a straw fed through so it wouldn't spill. It took a basic problem and resolved it. JetBlue also talks about bringing a sense of humanity back to airline travel. We interpreted that, to some extent, as intuitive. The building itself is conceived by Gensler, so most of the basic decisions and the shape of the space were done; it was a well-planned canvas to paint on. If you move through security, this marketplace gives you a sense of where to go. The basic forms moved you toward the gate. We also talked about a sense of style, but the overriding thing about JetBlueness is that everything has purpose.

I also thought about how airports are entrances, the gateways to the city. Many airports fall into the hassled and anonymous category and really have nothing to do with the city. In terms of New Yorkness, we thought about the places that welcome you and allow you to experience the theater of public life: the steps at the Met, the bridges, the structures that signal entry to this amazing city. So it's Jet Blueness meets New Yorkness.

How do those two experiences meet?

Every airport is different in terms of travel experience and JetBlue turns over the planes every 30 minutes, so I wouldn't say this marketplace was conceived as a long-term place to be. If I were doing this in Hong Kong, say, day beds might be more important than perches. For the traveler now—there are so many hassles, so many logistics—in some ways clarity is the most important contribution a designer can make. This space is conceived of as a movement space. If you think about New York, Times Square isn't a square; it's a bow tie and it's defined by movement. And this is very similar. (New York Mayor) Bloomberg has a plan to put public furniture in pocket parks. If you go to Madison Square you can see the furniture in the intersection, so people can celebrate that sense of movement. This plugs into that idea; it's not a long-term hang out. It's a sublet, not a condo.

Credit: Susan Stava
So, where did you start?

We work with choreographers when we design sets for theater and JetBlue had a big concern about the 20 million passengers, the enormous traffic flow going through the building. One of the great things about New York is, when you walk along the streets, you can sense who's in the choreography of the city, and who's not. There are those people in a different rhythm. So we consulted with (the choreographer) Jerry Mitchell, who is now doing Catch Me If You Can as a musical with us. [Bringing him in ] was a very high-concept move that no one could really understand, including Jerry—he didn't know what he was going to contribute. We showed him the model and slowly we started to talk about: if New York was a dance, how would it move?

By bringing in a choreographer and talking about the dance of the city, one thing that clicked was something that happened my first year at Syracuse University. The first snow fall, all the architecture students got up on top of Slocum Hall and the design professor pointed out that the freshly made footprints in the snow weren't in a straight line, but in a gentle sine curve. And I started to talk to Jerry about body balance and about how you generally don't walk in a straight line because you're constantly swaying back and forth. And that influenced the decision to have the movement be influenced by these two objects: the tall bleacher and the lower platform.

When you're coming through security, they gently move you into the speed of the terminal, slowing you down from the New York speed toward the outer edges. When you're coming into the city, you move between them—they act like a compression ring and they accelerate you into the speed of the city heading down to luggage. We thought of it like white water rafting: do what the water does, avoid the rocks. People move around these things to their gates; it's a circular motion. And while this dance of the city is going around, you can sit on them, perch and watch the city. All of the flight information is on the columns, there are moveable cushions, it's all Wi Fi. When you come through and you've got 45 minutes or an hour, instead of sitting at a seat in a traditional space, you can participate in a more urban experience. Above, there's a 43-LED screen tension ring supported by thousands of cables that [acts as] a central icon that also gives you a place for public art, and takes the place of something like the clock at the Biltmore or, in a village, the clock tower, the single organizing element that you recognize and move around. The cable system that supports this ring is a beautiful web, very subtle, white-on-white and a nod toward the glamour, anti-gravity and levitation of the Saarinen.

I understand that sociologist William H. Whyte's studies of urban spaces also inspired this design. How's that reflected here?

We looked at some of the work Whyte had done in the '60s studying urban spaces and several big public spaces. We looked at Lincoln Center, Grand Central Station, Union Square. He observed [that] people want to be where other people are. So by creating the bleachers, [we] give you a place to perch, observe and be with other people. There was a lot of observation about wanting to be in open space, but when I design a restaurant, what I find is that people want to have a wall behind them, predominantly people want to feel cocooned, and the idea of cocooning and open circulation are counter-intuitive. The way we brought them together here was based on what Whyte observed about people wanting to gather in clusters.
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