Is the Worldport Worth Saving


Preservation had a brief posting on the campaign to save the PanAm Worldport at JFK. If you are familiar with this terminal, it is likely because you have been forces to weave through oncoming taxis to enter or exit the building, as there is no clear pedestrian route between the terminal and the parking/AirTrain structure that serves it.

Architecturally, the UFO-saucer of a roof seems to provide more shelter to the planes pulled up outside than it does comfort or awe to the travelers inside. The building seems misplaced, as if the car-centric aesthetics of a corporate campus had gotten lost where no-one could really appreciate it: the best photographs are invariably taken from low to the ground out on the tarmac–a vantage point that only the guy driving the luggage carts gets to see regularly.

Anthony Stramaglia, a leader of the preservation group, thinks that the design is a show-stopper. “You just don’t see buildings like that anymore constructed at airports,” he says. “Now a terminal is more like a warehouse than a showpiece. This building is more of an art form.”

The Worldport suffers from a problem common to buildings planned in ideal geometries: inflexibility. The circle of its plan admits no modification or addition. For all of the banality of the bar or Y-plan terminals that have come since, they benefit from the ability to be extended, re-spaced, and generally reconfigured. Circles can only really grow through concentric expansion–think the rings on a tree–while still maintaining their essential form. That’s not the renovation strategy you see for most buildings.

And whatever problems the terminal faces at its perimeter are almost laughably trivial compared to its interior. It simply can’t handle the requirements of air travel today. The two major components of a modern airport–commerce and security–are engaged in a knife fight inside the terminal doors as both scramble for the space they need. The last time I took a flight from the terminal, the line for security screening went out the doors–and it wasn’t because the line was long. It was because there was no room for the screening equipment anywhere further than 20 feet inside the building. This type of problem isn’t unique to the Worldport. I remember when I worked next to two architects charged with fitting the new color baggage X-ray machines required after September 11th into the plans for a new terminal our firm was designing. The machines were so heavy they couldn’t be supported by the structure at the upper floors if the building, but they were so big that they couldn’t fit between the columns at the lower floors. Clearly, the activities we expect our terminals to handle have changed significantly since the Worlport saw the Beetles off on their first U.S. tour, but the nature of transportation technology is to change and evolve. A building that is meant to stand as a monument to that technology must make the adaptation to change part of its design.