Play Architecture in the Terminal of Currents

Daily Draw January 6th, 2013

I started this a couple of months ago and bogged down in trying to sort out a sadness that overtook me with it. I find corporate history interesting, and as well as architecture, this building is about the changing fortune and vision of corporations, and the sadness of ageing, change, and loss of leadership.

Eero Saarinen
TWA Building
New York


The first thing I thought of in relation to Trans World Airlines (TWA) was Howard Hughes. Hughes bought 25% of TWA way back in 1938 and eventually controlled 78%, so essentially he owned the company, although they had a board of directors.

This airline was so much a part of post-war America and the elegance of design and new technology. The company stood for luxury travel and carried the cachet of Hughes, the daring flyer, the innovator, the dashing money guy. We need heroes and he was one for a time.

As he aged they forced him out. He relinquished power of TWA in 1961 while this building was being created, and in 1966 they took him to court and forced him to sell his shares in the company. He lived for ten more years, moving from hotel to hotel, becoming reclusive, malnourished, with overgrown hair and nails, and suffused with chronic pain. It was medications he took for pain that contributed to his kidney failure. He was always eccentric and obsessive, but I wonder if ageing and the way he was dismissed and disrespected were what really killed him?

Eero Saarinen’s father was an architect and the family came to America from Finland when Eero was about 13. When he finished high school he went to Paris to study sculpture in 1930 and then came back to the States, got an architectural degree from Yale, and joined his father’s practice in 1937. You can see this interest in sculpture very clearly in his designs.

He started off emulating the designs of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, and then moved into a style people call “romantic” or “expressive” with more curves and sweeping shapes than the rigid, rectangular style of those gentlemen. In 1950 he opened his own office with other designers and became known for distinctive designs. He was always changing though, always interested in trying new things, almost as if he couldn’t quite settle on a style, or perhaps changeability was his style?

The TWA Terminal is his best-known work and it is in all my modern art and architecture books. The curves he favoured seem like sculptural wings that suggest the rising take-off of flight. He wanted the building to express the drama and excitement of travel. The anticipation of soaring aloft is palpable, and the light filters in from everywhere in the structure, so you feel bathed in sky. Here is a picture as it was originally:


The Sydney Opera house uses a similar roof and they were designed at the same time. Some things I read say the preponderance of upswing roofs and all kinds of curling forms in architecture of the 1950s and 1960s reflected the optimism of the period. It could be, or perhaps architects were bored with rectangles and just felt like experimenting with free-form shapes? It might have been a bit of both. Like other forms of art, architecture does involve philosophy and sociology, so periodic movements in society and human culture would charge the art of the period too.

The interior reminds me of air currents, and the turbulence experienced by planes in flight; wind swirling and lifting. All the fixtures, boards, stairs, signs, chairs, and phone booths were custom designed by Saarinen so that the whole assemblage had a matching look. The curves were carried into the sidewalks and parking lot outside and it had a related traffic tower on the grounds. I like the way it seems to ripple out in circles, expansive, ready for the future.


Like other architects, he designed furniture as well, and two of his chair designs are still in production. The tulip chair was often seen in episodes of the original Star Trek television show.


Eero Saarinen died in 1961 of a brain tumour before the building was completed, he was only 51. His associates made sure that his unfinished projects were completed. Like Hughes, his reputation suffered as he fell out of fashion.

In 1978, airline deregulation in the United States removed government imposed price restrictions and the TWA management didn’t seem to be able to cope with competition. The currents of management and lack of leadership had them limping along through the 1980s. It reminds me of IBM not seeing the importance of the personal computer revolution. By the time someone noticed they lost much of their corporate power and status and their reputation as innovators.

TWA filed for bankruptcy in 1992 and 1995, then turned it around for a short time until they merged with American Airlines and disappeared forever in 2001. The world moved on and planes got bigger and bigger and there was more traffic and people in airports. No longer the TWA terminal, this building is now known as Terminal 5. It was expanded to accommodate jumbo jets, they demolished some of the original complex and tacked on a new structure. They “refurbished” what they could save of the old terminal, mostly the roof and front of the building which is partially encircled by the newer terminal.

This is what it looks like now:



The magic and landscape of the design is gone, it looks like a snack bar squeezed into an aluminum junk yard. Change, loss of leadership, age, decrepitude, and time swallow it: the lack of vision continues.

Howard Hughes and Eero Saarinen have been entombed in the Terminal of Currents, along with the optimism that we felt in 1962.




2 thoughts on “Play Architecture in the Terminal of Currents

  1. That was both interesting and sad to read. I love that original photo of the building. Yes, the magic is gone.

    It feels to me that we had years of progression in so many things and now, a surge of technology at such as rapid rate is killing those things that slowly progressed and were the signposts for their decades. Do you know what I mean? Everything is moving so quickly and the magic is being suffocated.

    • Yes, I find lately that things and attitudes are changing so much. I like computers but all this phone and tablet stuff–it’s like you can never get away, never ruminate on anything.

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