JFK Airport, "Icon for the Jet Age"

By Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin

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Airports have a way of wearing out, of becoming prematurely bedraggled, haggard, and out-of-date. They are tired, tiring, and tiresome places where the architecture never makes the moment of arrival or departure grand or inviting. Dismal is the norm.

John F. Kennedy International Airport is no exception. First called Idlewild, it grew by accretion, adding privately held airline terminal buildings one after another, until the entire place was a mass of short circuits. Nothing connected, and with the exception of Eero Saarinen’s swooping TWA Terminal, nothing made the experience of flying a thrill. Delano and Aldrich’s original 1945 master plan had envisioned a single, shared terminal––an idea abandoned because neither the air carriers nor the bookkeepers liked it. By the mid-1980s, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which ran the airport, was again interested in the idea.

This is the last in a series of posts drawn from the authors'recent work
Never Built New York, published courtesy of Metropolis Books.

The architects Pei Cobb Freed were solicited to draw a new blueprint. This would be round two for the firm that had done the 1960 airport layout. The 1990 version, produced by partner Henry N. Cobb, was an ingenious scheme of infill. He would take the empty land between the scattered terminals and build a grand, central terminal. Passengers would arrive and depart and transfer through the vast concourse, connecting to the newly demoted outlying satellite terminals via people movers.

One single, grand terminal for all the airlines

One single, grand terminal for all the airlines

On the outside, the plain structure had a flat aluminumskin roof, 600 feet long, supported at the edges by two-storyhigh concrete pylons. The smooth, unassuming glass sheathing did not prepare you for the charged emotional space at the center of the interior. Awkwardly named Meeter and Greeter Hall, the domed arrival space would have been 140 feet across and 115 feet high, with a huge oculus-shaped skylight permitting the sun’s rays to pour in from overhead. Four sculpted archways, with graduated, radiating fans like those on the crown of the Chrysler Building defined the nexus of movement as passengers went toward the boarding gates, restaurants, shops, taxis, and parking garages. The palette was subtle and refined: combed plaster, striated granite, and a geometric terrazzo floor. A gallery, laid out around the main hall, had tiered seating so that family and friends could see you arriving or departing.

Hidden beneath and behind this grand, eloquent public space, there would be a multilayered network of interwoven roads, walkways, tunnels, and people movers, designed to alleviate congestion and make the central terminal feel someplace apart, noble, and breathtaking.

“Had it been built, it would have been an icon for the jet age,” Cobb recalled from his Lower Manhattan office in 2015.

A bird's-eye view of the consolidated terminal

A bird's-eye view of the consolidated terminal

The airport's master plan anticipated future growth

The airport's master plan anticipated future growth

But the airlines undid the concept, just as they had undone Delano and Aldrich’s nearly a half-century before (as they undid, too, William Pereira’s radical glass-dome Los Angeles International Airport in the early 1950s). The airlines did not want a common hall; they did not want to make it easy to transfer from one terminal to another. Like the lords of Las Vegas, they wanted their customers to stay under their roofs, with difficult and forbidding roads and walkways reinforcing the boundaries of their feudal holdings and arbitrary prerogatives. (Ronald Reagan’s airline deregulation was in full, debilitating, pitiless effect.)

Within days of Pei Cobb Freed having finished the construction documents on the $450-million building, the Port Authority pulled the plug. The official excuse was that the money had dried up. But to have allowed the firm to get to the point where the shovels were poised to dig, only to scuttle the operation, pointed to a much more likely reason: The Port Authority had caved to the airlines’ craven wishes and was waiting for the right moment to dismiss the architects.


Sam Lubell is a Staff Writer at Wired and a Contributing Editor at the Architect’s Newspaper. He has written seven books about architecture, published widely, and curated Never Built Los Angeles and Shelter: Rethinking How We Live in Los Angeles at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum. Greg Goldin was the architecture critic at Los Angeles Magazine from 1999 to 2011, and co-curator, and co-author, of Never Built Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Architectural Record, The Architect’s Newspaper, and Zocalo, among many others.