Save the Box
Modernism is worth saving—even some of the less than majestic steel and glass boxes, and even if they do not work very well. This week, news comes of two preservationist dilemmas: Terminal 6 at JFK Airport is slated for demolition, and the Inland Steel Building in Chicago will be renovated into expensive office space, despite its many limitations. The former is a flawed public structure of some, but not a large amount, of merit, while the latter is a bravura act of architectural triumph over functionality and cost, to be renovated at even greater cost by a group of investors including Frank Gehry. Neither will, in the end, be the structures that originally appeared from their designer’s drafting tables.
Photo: Amiaga Studios
Terminal 6 was designed in 1968 by I.M. Pei and opened in 1970. It originally housed National Airlines, and after that hosted a number of different carriers (I remember waiting for United flights in a corner of its expanse) before becoming vacant when Jet Blue moved into the addition adjacent to Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal two years ago. This is not the TWA Terminal but, to paraphrase Vincent Scully, the box that terminal came in. It is essentially a 350,000 square foot pair of halls sheltered under a roof and visibly supported only by columns at the periphery. The scale is majestic, and some of the details, such as the ramps that led out to the waiting pods and the staircase to the lower level, are impeccable examples of the stretching of modernist geometries into objects that facilitate motion.
Photo: George Cserna
The problem is that terminals are not just spaces. They are holding tanks and distraction machines, and Terminal 6’s emptiness soon became a fullness of stuff, from security lines to offices to stores, that made it difficult to appreciate its beauty. It reminded me of Stansted, Norman Foster’s suburban London airport, another hangar hovering over fast food restaurants and endless control mechanisms. The ambitions of modernism are too big for us mortals, it appears, and the appearance that remains is one of structure and logic that happens far above us. But that very sense of a reality that reaches beyond our quotidian concerns is worth preserving.
Photo: Inland Steel
I would say the same about Inland Steel. When the building was designed in 1958, it pulled apart the box that most high-rises came in: The core stood behind the stack of office floors, which were open and uninterrupted lofts surrounded by a continuous band of floor-to-ceiling glass. Bruce Graham, who passed away only recently, finished the design started by Walter Netsch, and the final result was an expressive diagram of a skyscraper, albeit in a 20-story package. What seemed like a luxury of openness and clarity became a restraint as office uses and technology changed. Now the investors are not only hoping to make the building less of an energy sieve (see the detailed article on this issue in Metropolis), but are also offering their own flexible office furniture to make best use of the open plan.
In both cases, modernism has shown its limits. Openness and flexibility turn out to be constraints and restraints. The image of the new, the clear, and the abstract age and become clouded by use and wear. It takes a new level of inventiveness to make best use of such icons of modernity, and a substantial investment. In the case of Inland Steel, the money will be spent. In the case of Terminal 6, that seems less likely. Yet I, for one, would rather wait in an airy hangar, assuming a clever architect can figure out how to make it work, than in the fussy shopping malls that these days masquerade as transportation hubs. I would also like to work in an open loft looking out over the city, and prefer to see a building that clearly shows me what it is and how it works. I would even argue that both of these structures contribute more to our urban environment than most mediocre classicists boxes. So let’s save the modernist moment, without nostalgia, through intelligent reuse of that promise of an open future.