It was the freeway leading to LAX that reminded me. Airports used to make you feel like an astronaut on your way to the moon. Drive here at dusk and you see columns rocketing up on both sides of your car, a flying-saucer bar and eerie, meteor greens that flash like futuristic hues.
Colors from a future that you knew about when you were a kid. But that you forgot. It seems like eons ago, but airport spaces shaped in the 1950s and 60s were like tailfins -- they had to do with dreams of perfect travel, not with puttering along. No one needed the sharp edges, the marble sleekness, the museum glow, but this was the new world of jets, and we passengers were pioneers.
I am no expert on the insides or outsides of buildings, but it made sense to me back then that places which you flew from made you feel like getting into the air. Catching a train at Paddington you caught the urgency, first, from whistles and mighty ceilings of raw steel. Boarding a ship at New York's Pier 88, the wide-openness of towering prow and slapping river made you eager to sail.
I can't help thinking architect Eero Saarinen had this in mind with his curvy, concrete TWA Terminal which opened at Kennedy Airport back in 1962. I've got a book about this building, which was rehabbed a while back into JetBlue's Terminal 5. A book in which critics scratch their heads over the thing. "Architecture's cognoscenti have been guessing," says my book, "at just what inspired its soaring form."
Memo to critics: Haven't you ever flown?
Take a look at Saarinen's slopes, which are all still there, at the pod-like shape of the terminal, and at the way the roof rises up wanting to take wing. This is a flight station that briefs you and gets you ready to go. A layover between earth and sky.
TWA itself may be defunct, but in this day and age of fearful and uncomfortable flying, why don't designers of airports take some lessons from the place? After a field trip or two, airport architects could be shooting -- not for perfect restaurants or twinkling, back-lit shops -- but for the stars.
LAX is nice at night, but it is only its odds and ends like all those colored columns and the spaceship-like Encounter restaurant that make you think of adventure. Denver International Airport has an inspiring pointy roof, but you guess that it's meant to pick up on the mountains around there and not on rockets or on the tips of wings.
As any passenger knows most of the airports which we lift off from are complexes in the style of a corporate park. You take trams from one terminal to the next. You park in a garage. You have your choice of gifts to pack and snacks to eat and souvenirs to carry along. But you can go for hours without catching the scent of jet fuel, hearing the rumble of an engine, or sometimes, even seeing outside.
Maybe it is just me but, as a long-time anxious flyer, I am best when I can look through banks of plate glass windows right smack at the runways, watch the winking of jet taillights, and keep my eye on what is to come. Do not try to fake me out with miniature bars or boxed-in hallways, which make the walls close in before I ever wedge onto a plane. Do not trick me by enclosing me in stores that pretend to be like any other -- with mundane chain names and smells of cinnamon buns. That's when the traveler inside me begins to scream.
The fact is that the everyday-ness of today's airports is exactly the opposite of what we flyers need. Don't wall us off, you builders, from where we are and what we are about to do. We may be frightened but we are not dumb.
Tell us the enormous truth that heavy metal carriers will somehow lift us off the ground. Let us imagine the freedom of flight, the largeness of the air. The wonder of the thing may work: a false façade will only make it impossible. Watch me grab my baggage, retreat to my automobile and drive directly home.
Will commercial flying in a terror- and war-struck world ever be good again? Can it come back to being beautiful -- buzzing above the clouds -- or at least a time of exploration, a cap on your trip? I don't know the answer to this. But I do know one thing: I want to leave and arrive in airports that are all about thundering 767s and uniformed pilots and the wonderful power of flipping continents overnight.
As I have said, I'm no architect. But I have a sketchpad, and I am heading to Kennedy just to take another look.
I want to remind myself about the shape, the color of flying back when I was young. It was a time of spaceships and sharp tailfins and sporting a suit on the plane. And one of streamlined Eero Saarinen spaces that fit right in.
Anyone want to come?
Peter Mandel is an author of picture books for kids, including his read-aloud bestseller: Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook), and his newest about zoo animals passing on a very noisy sneeze: Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House).