The Spirit of Flight

It was planned to express the “spirit of flight”, and Saarinen, the mind behind the project, succeed.

In 1957, Trans World Airlines commissioned a building to represent its ambitions, and an equally ambitious and renown architect to bring the vision to life. When the building opened its doors in May 1962 as the TWA Flight Center, flight was becoming an economically feasible option for more Americans, marking an exciting time in aviation. Flight has always been glamorous, and the TWA building cemented that feeling with its iconic architecture.

It is the location for our latest photo shoot, where we were inspired to create our Flight Brief for the traveling man. Pictured above you can see our man of action rushing off to catch a flight.

Frequent travelers at JFK will have spotted this bird-shaped building near the new JetBlue Terminal 5. You see it when you pass by on the Air Train, a futuristic looking building even today. But the main road is eerily closed off, there are no cars out front, no taxis waiting for passengers, and no security guards shooing cars away from waiting for passenger pickup.

The walls are a bleached white, and contrast so well against the blacktop and blue sky above. The windows are giant, expansive and allow for visitors to gaze upon the jets landing and taking off. The glass has a green hue to it, and the inside of the building is dramatically lit and incredibly spacious. According to The New York Times at the time of unveiling: “the shell will be formed of four merging vaulted dome shapes supported at only four points. The two lateral domes extend outward and upward in a cantilever design resembling wings. The shell will be about 300 feet long and fifty feet high. Open spaces will be sheathed in glass."

The TWA terminal was conceived by Eero Saarinen, the Finnish-American architect. His father was an eminent sculptor who taught courses at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. After moving from Finland when he was young, he attended courses there with Charles and Ray Eames – his early, seminal works were furniture that showcased his eclectic, neo-futuristic sensibility. The “Pedestal” and “Womb Chair” were created in the late 40s and 50s, and provide a glimpse at the style of larger architectural works. The General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan was his first major work. It is a complex campus for General Motors, an encompassing environment with style and functionality. The character of the Tech Center led him to design headquarters for IBM and CBS; as well as numerous structures, buildings and involved campus plans at universities, including MIT, Yale, and University of Pennsylvania. His style became adaptable and varied in many diverse environments. Along with the TWA Center, the Dulles International Airport and the iconic Gateway Arch in St. Louis are largely considered his ultimate masterpieces, the last structures he designed.

The building was originally budgeted for $12,000,000 but exceeded that to cost $15,000,000 – a paltry sum by today’s standards. Saarinen told The New York Times that he had two purposes in mind. “One was to make the passenger's transition from taxicab to airplane as painless as possible. The other was to capture and express the dynamic quality of an airline, and the spirit of flight itself.”

The architecture was meant to accommodate Lockheed Constellations and Boeing 707s. It is a unique and iconic structure; a one-off image of modern design and technology. The interior is a coordinated network of enormous sweeping curves with the aura of a futuristic, space age. Although the interior features ultramodern freeform elements, the structure also contains the symmetry characteristic of classical, Beaux Arts architecture. The terminal is an incredibly posh setting to find yourself sprinting to a connecting flight.

After Trans World Airlines closed its operations in 2001, Terminal 5 did as well, after functioning as a terminal for nearly 40 years. The space has seen numerous proposals for reuse; with some envisioning it as a conference center, restaurant, hotel, or aviation museum. Most plans involved changing or concealing the presence of the structure. Threats to the building’s visibility caught the attention of architects, artists, and even the Finnish government. In 2005, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In October 2008, JetBlue’s Terminal 5 was designed to complement the building. Saarinen’s original building is currently not open to the public, but will be transformed into a hotel that does not subdue the entire presence of the building. The structure has become a legendary, beloved icon, with fans all over the world – and it has a bright future.