“A corporate showpiece movement”: Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center at New York’s Idlewild Airport (today’s JFK) , which opened in 1962, played a key role in defining this term. Photo © Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab
Swirled surroundings
by Thomas Wagner
Oct 13, 2015

First: Super Constellation

Eero Saarinen (1910 bis 1961) not only knew how to create shapes that seduced the eye, but also exactly how to address the client’s brief and factor it into the outer shape of a building. “A corporate ‘showpiece’ movement” was what a 1960 issue of the journal “Architectural Forum” called a type of architecture that reflected this perfectly. Examples are Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, where the ribbon was cut in New York in 1959, Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House, which was commissioned in 1973, and Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center at New York’s Idlewild Airport (today’s JFK) , which opened in 1962. Saarinen played a key role in defining this trend, which is why English architecture critic Reyner Banham referred to him as “the first patron saint of the ‘style-for-the-job’ faction”.

Anyone who has anything to do with architecture is familiar with that “icon of the Jet Age”, even if the Jet Age had not really got off the ground back in the days when the TWA Terminal opened and the latter was not designed to meet the needs of that new era. However typical Eero Saarinen’s elegant building with its striking roof structure reminiscent of the wings of a bird may have been for post-War corporate architecture, in the opinion of Kornel Ringli it differs substantially in one particular way from all other corporate buildings of the day: For it stands out above all for its outer shape. The architectural significance of this was truly emphasized in 1994 when the building was designated a heritage site.

Ringli believes that simply seeing Saarinen’s airport terminal as one of those sensational buildings such as are today almost the norm does not do justice to it. So he actually focuses on the stereotypical reception patterns, expands our vision, and considers the TWA Terminal against the backdrop of an over-arching corporate strategy. This may tarnish the myth, but offers a sharper view and places the building in the context of the deeper strata of the architectural world: “Unlike publications to date, the present study for the first time addresses the TWA Terminal extensively in terms of its internal operational layout (Corporate Architecture), its design (Corporate Design) and its media image (Corporate Communication).”

Ringli’s monograph is a compressed version of his Ph.D., written in 2012, and is thus bursting with materials and very reflective. In the first chapter he expounds how the shape of the building was not developed as a freeform but on the basis of elaborate process studies conducted at other airports, and that the TWA Terminal can thus be considered a direct translation into three dimensions of the sketched flow charts. Since the number of passengers was rocketing at the time and aircraft cabins were being optimized for mass operations, the ground infrastructure likewise needed to adapt and ensure the precise layout of the arrivals and departures sections. Saarinen’s open, flowing spaces largely dispense with thresholds or doors in order to guarantee the shortest possible routes and smooth handling. Doors that open automatically as well as novel reservation, display and baggage-handling systems turned the hall into a check-in and check-out machine.

A company’s image became ever more important in the fiercely competitive US market. Ringli’s second chapter is therefore devoted to the Trans World Airlines corporate image. It took its cue from the Lockheed Constellation, which the company had helped develop: a propeller plane that was quite unique in visual and technical terms in the post-War world. When, in 1958, visually less striking jet airplanes were introduced, TWA lost its previous unique selling proposition. Since design and architecture were starting to be far more influential in the aerospace industry, the company turned to Raymond Loewy for a comprehensive design program to shore up its position – and TWA commissioned Eero Saarinen as the architect for its new terminal. “Saarinen designed an edifice that can be associated with a bird about to take off and thus a building that can be read as a direct advertising appeal to get up and away with TWA.”

The third chapter focuses on the PR work done by Aline Saarinen and TWA. Ringli shows how Eero Saarinen, striving for a firm place in the architectural firmament, had an ideal PR manager in the guise of his wife, and she exploited all stages of the construction project to nurture the Saarinen myth. All the activities relating to the terminal’s grand opening culminated in NBC broadcasting the opening gala live on May 28, 1962. A memorial plaque in the hall commemorates the architect, who died suddenly in 1961 aged only 51 from the results of an operation for a brain tumor – and turns the TWA Flight Center as completed by his staff into a Saarinen monument.
Kornel Ringli’s monograph on an icon of architecture history makes it clear what can be achieved if architecture if grasped not just as an event but also seen in the context of countless different interests, forces, and influential factors.

Designing TWA,
Eero Saarinen’s Airport Terminal in New York
Kornel Ringli
224 pages, hardcover, 71 color and 169 b&w illustrations
Park Books, Zürich 2015
EUR 38.00

Second: Friedrich Kiesler and infinity

Down through history, the story of architecture has always also been that of analyzing space. Friedrich Kiesler was a visionary – unorthodox and provocative. Be it as an artist, architect, designer, poet or theorist, Kiesler operated for the benefit of a future nourished by inspiration. His guiding principle could be summed up as: “Function follows vision, vision follows reality”. Kiesler’s possibly most fascinating project, an icon of visionary architecture and still a source of inspiration for all those thinking outside the architectural box, is his “Endless House” – despite, or maybe precisely because of the fact it was never built.

In an undated manuscript, Kiesler wrote “The house has to finally turn into a cosmos, an intrinsic transformer of vital energies; and of course these energies will evolve into incredible dimensions of expanse and seclusion in this artificial environment. The home no longer needs to languish on the surface of the earth like an ulcer or wart, but shall take its place in the world of creations like a crystal, a planet, a fruit, an eye or muscle, an atom. It needs to become creature, an aggregate of forces that unite to form a new body.”

The publication resulting from Klaus Bollinger’s “Unbuildable?!” seminar series at the Institute for Architecture at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna contains many as yet unpublished sketches, drawings, plans and photographs for Kiesler’s project. Numerous essays based on current research discuss the emergence of Kiesler’s concept of endlessness, his “Endless House” and its status within Kiesler’s “correalistic” thinking. The possibility of implementing his vision with today’s means is also sounded out. Artistic works that engage sometimes more, sometimes less directly with Kielser’s notion of space are collected at the end of the volume. This includes pieces by Ólafur Elíasson, Tomás Saraceno, Jürgen Mayer H., Hans Hollein, Andrea Zittel and Heimo Zobernig.

In his “attempt to trace a never-ending story”, Gerd Ziller remarks that Kiesler’s main idea “was probably endless, fluid space. It is manifest as spatial theatre and the endless stage, as space city and space sculpture, exhibition spaces and as space-time architecture. This idea runs through his entire oeuvre and culminates in the Endless House as an endless lifelong project.”

Many facets play a role here, including some relating to the history of architecture, his biography or the psychology of perception. But regardless of how we approach Kiesler’s work, its core objective will always remain to produce a radical change in how we construe space. Referring to perceptual psychologist James J. Gibson, Canadian architecture theorist Sanford Kwinter shows how Kiesler shed the shackles of an understanding of space as a fixed size and as a framework or secure fundament for experience. “Space as such“ – as Gibson observes, a long time after Kiesler – is “a myth, a ghost, a fiction, good for surveyors”. When Kielser spoke of “endlessness” then this was basically an expression of “the continuity of every point and object in the world in relation to everything that has an effect on it, whether this is at a close proximity or at a distance.” Anything that is solid melts in thin air, and there are instead a great number of transmissions and correlations. Consequently, we are dealing with constantly modifying, cursory, tentative formations that by means of our perception condense to form a space outside ourselves. Kiesler’s Correalism also posits “the image of an instantaneous intermingling of environments that overrides any separation between worldly objects, their structural use or the ideas, habits and desires they have fathered.” It doesn’t take a lot to see just how topical Kiesler’s vision is today.

Endless Kiesler
Ed. by Klaus Bollinger, Florian Medicus, Kiesler Privatstiftung Wien
360 p., hardcover, text in German and English
Birkhäuser Verlag, Basel 2015
EUR 29.95

Third: Big Yellow

And finally, a volume of an entirely different kind fell into my hands, not a publication brought out this autumn but one published back in 2014: A very special photo book and an endeavor to search for traces of the past. Swiss photographer Catherine Leutenegger visited the town of Rochester, NY, USA, twice, in 2007 and 2012. For many years, life in the city revolved around a single company: Kodak. In her poignant images, Leutenegger perceives and records signs of troublesome upheaval, of the decline of a once flourishing industry, and of the city’s gradual decay. And finally, these are of course likewise signs of a particular chapter in photographic history.

Black birds perch in barren black treetops – or rather this is how it begins. Another image shows the aqueduct spanning the Erie Canal in Rochester, the very same subject George Eastman recorded in his first-ever photograph, back in 1877. “Rochester – Truly Colerful” reads a huge billboard in a different photograph. Six square images in-between these two show color fields in red, orange, yellows, green, blue and violet. The lower right-hand corner reads: Kodak.

Rochester is located in upstate New York. This is where the Genesee River flows into Lake Ontario. There is a waterfall in the center of town that helped drive Rochester’s early industrialization. When the Erie Canal, connecting the large Great Lakes with the capital city of Albany and via the Hudson, with New York, was completed in the mid-19th century, numerous mills were established here, which is why Rochester was soon called “Flour City”. Rochester’s rise was to be that of a typical “Company Town” and intrinsically tied to Kodak for a long time.

Today, most of the car parks are empty, the shops have been abandoned and the windows boarded over. In another image, we look through the window of an empty shop at the outside world. The letters on the window, which of course read backwards, say “Great Things Happen In This Store”. That was the case, once upon a time presumably. A yellow chain with a sign reading CLOSED hangs above the stone-carved inscription reading “George Eastman Memorial”.

George Eastman invented neither photography nor roll film. But he made photography accessible to the masses, by putting an affordable camera including film on the market and providing an innovative service for developing film. In 1888, the Kodak standard model cost 25 dollars, which was approximately one month’s wages for a factory worker. In 1900, the “Brownie” camera including the film could be purchased for just one dollar. When all of the photographs on the film had been taken, you took the camera to a photography shop, where the film was developed and prints were made. The camera could be collected with the new film ready inserted.

Leutenegger has condensed the mixture of hope and despair that has spread throughout the city in photographs taken in Rochester's Vincent Street that show us signs in front of abandoned homes and empty streets. These read: “Stops”, “New Beginnings” and tell you were you are allowed to park your car – that’s all it takes to describe the current situation in Rochester. We are also presented with a glimpse of a conference room in a building in Kodak Park: The folding chairs and tables are still there, but all the employees have vanished. The reason for their disappearance also becomes clear in the image. Kodak’s legendary slogan adorns the wall in the conference room in large letters: “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest”. We still press the button, but in the era of digital photography, the rest has become superfluous. Yet Eastman could have owned digital photography with Kodak too: The first electronic camera world-wide was constructed in one of Kodak’s development labs. But the company missed its chance and ran into difficulties. It ended with “Big Yellow” filing for bankruptcy.

Those who don’t just want to look at Leutenegger’s evocative photographs but also understand what Kodak means for photography and what has been lost with the end of “Big Yellow” should dip into the intelligent and informative texts by A.D. Coleman, Jörg Bader and Urs Stahel. After all, “Kodak City” is also a book about the medium of photography enquiring into its own status – photographed using a medium-format camera, as well as with a digital camera when the emphasis was on snapshots.

Kodak City
Catherine Leutenegger
With essays by A. D. Coleman, Catherine Leutenegger, Joerg Bader, Urs Stahel
160 pages, 89 color ills.
Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg Berlin 2014
EUR 39. 90

In 1994 the TWA Terminal was designated a heritage site. Photo © Dan Page / Eero Saarinen Collection (MS 593). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library
Saarinen’s open, flowing spaces guarantee the shortest possible routes. Photo © Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab Archive at the Library of Congress
Aline B. Louchheim is not only Eero Saarinen’s wife, but also his manager for communication. Photo © Bernice Clark, Joe Clark (HBSS Studio)/Eero Saarinen
The TWA sketched on a menu paper. Photo © Illustrator ubk. / Sammlung Kornel Ringli
Installation by Frederick Kiesler at the “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes“ im Grand Palais, Paris 1925. Photo © Österreichische Friedrich und Lillian Kiesler Stiftung
Plans for the “Endless House“, 1959. Photo © Österreichische Friedrich und Lillian Kiesler Stiftung
Frederick Kiesler and Armand Bartos in Jerusalem,1965. Photo © David Rubinger. © Österreichische Friedrich und Lillian Kiesler Stiftung
“You Press the Button, We Do the Rest“: reception at Kodak in Rochester. Photo © Catherine Leutenegger, 2007
The former Kodak Tower at State Street.
Photo © Catherine Leutenegger, 2007
Emptyness replaces now the former dynamicity of the Kodak City.
Photo © Catherine Leutenegger, 2007
No innovations, the company missed its chance and ran into difficulties. Photo © Catherine Leutenegger, 2012