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"Our (New York area) airports ain't what they used to be"
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Our airports ain't what they used to be
They've becoming painfully generic as classic, friendly buildings get
replaced by structures with no identity
By Patrick Smith
Two classic American airport buildings are in the process of disappearing.
Over at New York's Kennedy airport, crews are laying waste to I.M. Pei's
Terminal 6. I was there the other day, taking in the destruction from the
elevated walkway between JetBlue and the JFK AirTrain. The gateside section
has been annihilated, the earth turned inside-out to a depth of two stories,
as if it took a direct hit from a couple of bunker busters. The main
building, with its boxy rectangular rooftop and exterior glass walls, awaits
The facility opened in 1970 as the home of National Airlines. It was called
the "Sundrome" -- a nod to National's yellow and orange sunburst logo, and
its popular routes between the Northeast and Florida. After National was
folded into Pan Am, the terminal was taken over by TWA. It was later used by
JetBlue, then abandoned when that carrier moved to the new (and much
overrated) Terminal 5. It has been vacant since 2008.
If it's any consolation, right next door, enveloped by the JetBlue complex,
Eero Saarinen's landmark TWA "Flight Center" still stands -- albeit in a
state of restoration limbo. Saved from the wrecking ball in 2003, it was
supposed to serve as an entryway lobby and ticketing plaza for JetBlue's T5.
For now it remains semi-derelict and only partly renovated. I wish they'd
finish the thing so that more people could appreciate what is arguably the
most architecturally significant airport terminal in the world.
Pei and Saarinen, a half-minute walk from each other. Our airports ain't
what they used to be.
Over on the north side of Queens, meanwhile, say goodbye to the 40-year-old
control tower at LaGuardia. Frequent fliers remember this building well --
hourglass-shaped and of modest height, bejeweled with a top-to-bottom series
of portholes. It was an odd, playful structure.
Nearby, at a cost of $100 million, stands its replacement. The new building
is what you might call the FAA Standard Model A1 Control Tower -- a control
tower that looks like every other American control tower put up over the
past 20 or 30 years. I think they come prefab in a great big packing crate.
The old one is about halfway gone at last check, sheathed in a black debris
screen, sans its top half. It looks like a decapitated tree trunk.
Airports, like the planes that serve them, have become painfully generic.
Functionality aside, part of any major airport building's job is to create a
sense of identity, inside and out -- the kind of place that, when you
glimpse it on TV or in a movie, even for just a second, you know exactly
where it is.
A dwindling number of airport facilities are distinctive in this way. The
spidery "Theme Building" at LAX is the most enduring. The main terminal at
Denver is another, as is the one at Washington-Dulles (Saarinen, again). And
we shan't forget my sentimental favorite, the twin-stanchion control tower
at Boston-Logan. (If only its 16th floor observation deck were still
Is there a reason, other than simple maintenance, they couldn't have left
LaGuardia's porthole tower standing?
It may not have been state-of-the-art, but it was a welcoming, almost
mischievous visual flourish in an otherwise joyless vista of seawater and
concrete. It lent a friendly touch to an airport that, in most respects, is
anything but friendly. It was, almost literally, an exclamation point. It
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