Saarinen Designs Kennedy Airport’s TWA Terminal Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Expanding his nonrectilinear sculptured architectural experiments, architect Eero Saarinen designed Trans World Airlines’ terminal at New York’s Kennedy Airport as an exciting interpretation of soaring spatial liberty.

Summary of Event

Eero Saarinen was commissioned in 1956 by Trans World Airlines (TWA), then one of the world’s leading air-passenger services, to design its prospective terminal at New York City’s Idlewild (later John F. Kennedy International) Airport. Eero was the son of Eliel Saarinen, a distinguished Finnish American architect who, after winning second prize for a design of the Chicago Tribune building, had brought his family to the United States in 1923. The elder Saarinen enjoyed an influential teaching career at the University of Michigan, as well as at the Cranbrook School of Art, and won professional praise for the execution of a number of private commissions. Notable among these were the Cranbrook School for Boys in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan; the Columbus, Indiana, Tabernacle Church of Christ; the Winnetka, Illinois, Crow Island School; the Fort Wayne, Indiana, A. C. Wermuth House, and, in collaboration with Eero, the Buffalo, New York, Kleinhans Music Hall. [kw]Saarinen Designs Kennedy Airport’s TWA Terminal (1956-1962) [kw]Kennedy Airport’s TWA Terminal, Saarinen Designs (1956-1962)[Kennedy Airports TWA Terminal, Saarinen Designs] [kw]Airport’s TWA Terminal, Saarinen Designs Kennedy (1956-1962)[Airports TWA Terminal, Saarinen Designs Kennedy] [kw]Terminal, Saarinen Designs Kennedy Airport’s TWA (1956-1962) Kennedy Airport Architecture;Eero Saarinen[Saarinen] Trans World Airlines terminal Airports Modernism;architecture Kennedy Airport Architecture;Eero Saarinen[Saarinen] Trans World Airlines terminal Airports Modernism;architecture [g]North America;1956-1962: Saarinen Designs Kennedy Airport’s TWA Terminal[05110] [g]United States;1956-1962: Saarinen Designs Kennedy Airport’s TWA Terminal[05110] [c]Architecture;1956-1962: Saarinen Designs Kennedy Airport’s TWA Terminal[05110] [c]Transportation;1956-1962: Saarinen Designs Kennedy Airport’s TWA Terminal[05110] Saarinen, Eero Saarinen, Eliel Roche, Kevin Le Corbusier Mies van der Rohe, Ludwig Eames, Charles

Both Eliel and his wife, Loja Gesellius Gesellius, Loja , a gifted weaver, photographer, sculptor, and architectural modeler, had nurtured Eero’s talents and seen him through Yale University’s School of Architecture—and its Beaux Arts tradition—to a place in Eliel’s architectural firm in 1935. Until Eliel’s death in 1950, Eero cultivated his own style within the firm of Saarinen and Saarinen, drifting from his father’s Beaux Arts eclecticism and earning personal recognition as a modernist. In 1940, he and Charles Eames won first prizes for furniture design sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art, and after three years of wartime service, Eero captured the federal competition for the design of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1948. Completed in 1964, the memorial eventually came to be considered one of his masterworks and a national architectural landmark.

By the 1950’s, architectural services of the Saarinen firm had become the most sought after in the country. Led by Eero, with a vastly expanded staff, the firm owed its prominence to Eero’s conservative salesmanship coupled with exciting, novel ideas and to the prestige of having won a number of multimillion-dollar commissions. Several of these were undertaken almost simultaneously, among them the General Motors Technical Center; the Kresge Auditorium and Chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; a Bell Laboratories research complex; a research and development “campus” for International Business Machines (IBM); Yale’s Ingalls Hockey Rink; the John Deere & Company Headquarters building; college buildings at Yale, the University of Chicago, and the University of Pennsylvania; U.S. embassy buildings in London and Oslo, and not least, the TWA project for Idlewild.

Amid this frenetic activity, the TWA terminal offered Eero further opportunities to lend form and order to his own highly technologized view of civilization and to employ variations of new materials to give the most satisfying expression to each project. Thus, refinements of automotive steel and glass were used at the General Motors Technical Center, a reinforced concrete parabolic vault was developed to give lift to the Ingalls Hockey Rink, the nation’s first concrete shell was built to open up the interior of Kresge Auditorium, and a massive curtain wall of glazed glass covered Bell’s rectilinear research building.

From this exuberant, heuristic context, the TWA terminal was to emerge as Saarinen’s most celebrated design. The building was a clear example of Saarinen’s search within each of his projects for a specifically appropriate idiom for the resolution of that work, rather than an effort to promulgate or perpetuate—like Le Corbusier or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—a particular architectural philosophy. The terminal was intended to emphasize the drama and exhilaration of flight. Both the interior and exterior designs of the building were meant to imbue travelers with a sense of the building’s constant motion. Four interlinked, slightly variegated barrel vaults supported by Y-shaped columns were joined to form the 50-foot-by-315-foot concrete shell enclosing the passenger area and defining the basic structure.

It was recognized that Saarinen’s thematic inspiration owed something in a very general sense to the earlier works of others, particularly to sculptor Naum Gabo’s designs and to projects previously executed by German-born Impressionist architects Erich Mendelsohn and Rudolph Steiner. Considerable experience had also accumulated to aid Saarinen (not to mention Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright) in seeking the plastic idiom of nonrectilinear structures, notably through the works of Eugene Freyssinet, Robert Maillart, and Pier Luigi Nervi. Because of the terminal’s combined measure of scale, innovation, drama, and detail, however, Saarinen’s design unquestionably bore his unique imprimatur. These refinements were an important result of his unprecedented reliance upon detailed model designs, which were elaborately patterned and sculpted in wire, cardboard, and other materials before being committed to paper, in order to deal with what he felt were the new architectural vocabularies required.

Saarinen conceived of the terminal, which was sited on a curving corner of Idlewild, as an emotional instrument, uplifting travelers from the sculpted entrance of massive ascending supports farther upward by convergent stairs into a central space of great flaring shells. This space yielded to huge convex windows with exhilarating panoramas of runways and sky. Entering the terminal, sensationally at least, the passenger was to be enveloped in an ambience of fluid freedom and premonitions of flight before embarking on an aircraft. Every curving detail inside—and outside, from which the structure appeared to be a bird about to soar—sought to engender this mood of expanding spatial liberty. Begun in 1956, the terminal was completed in 1962.


Saarinen’s TWA terminal ranks as his most famous design, although critics are generally agreed that Dulles International Airport Dulles International Airport at Chantilly, Virginia, which was also completed in 1962, ranks as his greatest architectural achievement. Both of these accomplishments, along with the completion of eighteen other major commissions, are regarded as all the more remarkable because Saarinen worked for little more than a decade in his own right before his death in September, 1961.

Saarinen’s release of his initial design studies for the TWA terminal late in the 1950’s provoked greater professional excitement and instantaneous acclaim than any other project of the period. Only plans for the Sydney Opera House solicited nearly as much attention. Accordingly, there was a breathless wait for the terminal’s completion.

The gulf between conception and design and the actual construction of the terminal facility left much to be desired, though, and the finished building proved something of a disappointment to Saarinen and to critics alike. Although Saarinen had worked well with the engineering firm of Ammann & Whitney Ammann & Whitney[Ammann and Whitney] on earlier commissions, the firm’s execution of his terminal design, particularly the engineering of the great concrete shells, was deemed far too conservative. Instead of appearing to rise from its site weightlessly, the structure seemed heavy.

Despite the expectations generated by construction photos, the actual terminal gave the impression of being subdued and too small for its simulation of flight. Within the interior, this heaviness was accentuated by the almost perverse use of closely packed steel railings for balustrades, while the installation of glazing bars destroyed the hoped-for sense of smooth spatial flow from one part of the interior to another. Corporate cost-cutting further impaired the design’s kinetic inspiration, for the moving pavements that were to have transported passengers through the terminal were abandoned, and the originally proposed interior bridgeways were supplanted by tunnels.

From critical perspectives, however, the worst blow to a full realization of Saarinen’s design was the suffusion of a dominant corporate presence—and its machines—into the structure in place of the proposed ambience that was to have been devoted to the exaltation of the passenger. This loss was exacerbated by the terminal’s surroundings, an aggregation of competing individual corporate headquarters, offices, and terminals that transformed Idlewild into what many felt was a vulgar modernist architectural circus. Overall, those who hoped that Saarinen’s exploding genius had brought him up to date with the new technologies of jet aircraft, the incipient electronic revolution, and satellites were dismayed by the Idlewild product. To Saarinen biographer and architectural critic Allan Temko, the failure of the TWA terminal in these respects was a consequence of the “much broader failings of our irrationally driven society.” Saarinen’s own assessment of the then still-unfinished terminal—perhaps too harsh a one—was that “it would make a beautiful ruin, like the baths of Caracalla.”

In much more positive ways, however, the impact of the Idlewild experience both for Saarinen and architectural critics carried over into the design and construction of his masterpiece, the Dulles International Airport at Chantilly, Virginia. Design and construction of the Dulles facility—in this case, Saarinen’s responsibility was not for one terminal but for an entire airport devoted exclusively to jet aircraft—began in 1958, two years after the beginning of the TWA terminal project, and was completed at the same time, in 1962. Thus, the two undertakings proceeded almost simultaneously, with obvious interactions.

If the finished TWA terminal might have looked more fulfilling alone atop a hill, Dulles International—appearing to hover between earth and sky, as Saarinen intended—had a profound impact upon the international architectural community, setting a world standard for jetports. As much as anyone, it was Saarinen who made TWA’s Idlewild facility obsolete. Critics could concede, thereafter, that Saarinen had satisfied his quest for the identification of his works with the era’s most advanced technology. More specifically, where the TWA terminal failed to center upon the physical and aesthetic needs of the traveler, Dulles triumphed. The moving stairs that had been subtracted from TWA’s construction were replaced at Dulles by newly designed, massive, mobile departure lounges that retained the kinetic feel of the passenger’s movement through the great central structure—its parabolic roof a tour de force of prestressed and precast concrete—into the aircraft.

Throughout his brief yet distinguished career—the American Institute of Architects awarded him, posthumously, its Gold Medal in 1962—Saarinen, unlike his great contemporaries, eschewed formulation of a consistent philosophy. Rather, he asked why people wanted a particular structure and then considered relevant factors such as the site, the building and its functions, economics, and the users’ psychological requirements. During the early years, when he came into direction of his father’s firm, he adhered to a vocabulary established, in steel as it were, by Mies van der Rohe and his younger disciples. After 1956, however, Saarinen stressed an elaboration of his own vocabulary in the light of his awareness of the times and the problems unique to a particular project. Through the failures of his electrifying design for the TWA terminal to the soaring success at Dulles, critics concur that Saarinen’s peculiar melding of static and mobile elements, along with an abandonment of monumentalism, may help provide one of the keys to twenty-first century architecture. Kennedy Airport Architecture;Eero Saarinen[Saarinen] Trans World Airlines terminal Airports Modernism;architecture

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carter, Peter. “Eero Saarinen, 1910-1961.” Architectural Digest 18 (December, 1961): 45-71. An accessible article with good summary observations on Saarinen’s development. Admiring but critical.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Christ-Janer, Albert. Eliel Saarinen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948. Important to understanding Eero’s training and development as an artist and architect. Beautifully illustrated with plans and photos. Two detailed chronologies, one personal, the other on works. Useful index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heyer, Paul. Architects on Architecture: New Directions in America. New York: Walker, 1966. Places Saarinen in context with his leading contemporaries. Informative interview of Kevin Roche on Saarinen’s development and understanding of architecture. Plenty of great photos. Useful select bibliography and index. A delightful salad of professional comments and assessments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Román, Antonio. Eero Saarinen: An Architecture of Multiplicity. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003. Study of Saarinen’s body of work, focused on its intentional lack of a distinctive, signature style. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Saarinen, Eero. Eero Saarinen on His Work. Edited by Aline B. Saarinen. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1962. The editor was Eero’s adoring second wife, but observations were the architect’s. Saarinen was reticent about philosophizing and much less well published than other major architects, but his musings and expositions here are important to an appreciation of him. Secure in his artistry, he had many critical observations about his work. Taken in conjunction with Heyer’s interview (cited above) with Kevin Roche about Saarinen, this collection is revealing. Good photos and plans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spade, Rupert. Eero Saarinen. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971. Excellent author’s introduction provides fine context and analysis. Admiring, but objective and critical. Seventy superb photos by Yukio Futagawa, supplemented by author’s excellent notes on twenty of Saarinen’s major works, including the TWA terminal. Chronological list of projects and events, select bibliography, and a useful index. A fine brief introduction to Saarinen, man and works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stoller, Ezra. The TWA Terminal. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999. Extensive photo essay on Saarinen’s structure, documenting its appearance when newly built. Seventy pages of photographic plates, plus drawings and plans of the terminal. Bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Temko, Allan. Eero Saarinen. New York: George Braziller, 1962. Excellent reading. While Temko treats Saarinen as a cultural hero, he remains critical and objective. Fine brief treatment of the TWA project. Splendid photos and plans, a short chronology, select bibliography, and detailed index.

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