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Art and the Airplane

The best of reader submissions following our talk of airplanes and Hollywood…

Hail Mary (1985)
Jean-Luc Godard’s retelling of the birth of Christ set in modern France. The angel Gabriel disembarks from an Air France jet to give Mary the news.

Parallax View (1974)
Roman á clef of the Kennedy conspiracy with Warren Beatty. A tense scene on a jet where Beatty’s character must foil a bombing without giving away how he knows about it. Scene ends with beautiful shot of jet at Dulles trailing a plume of black smoke.

The Killing (1956)
Stanley Kubrick’s masterful tale of a complex robbery and its aftermath, from a script partly written by Jim Thompson. When a slackjawed baggage handler knocks Sterling Hayden’s loot filled suitcase off his cart, we watch as the cash gets blown across a nighttime runway.

Bullit (1968)
Steve McQueen’s dogged pursuit of a suspect leads him onto the runway at San Francisco, and directly into the path of a jet.

Magnum Force (1973)
Dirty Harry Callahan blithely impersonates a jet pilot to get aboard a hijacked plane and clean house.

Dead Heat on a Merry-go-Round (1966)
The airport as its own intricate little world. James Coburn and gang plot to rob a bank at LAX.

Midnight Express (1978)
There’s a jet waiting in Istanbul, and young Billy Hayes most assuredly won’t be taking it back to America.

The Rose (1979)
Bette Midler is a ’70s rock star with her de rigeur personal and personalized plane.

Easy Rider (1969)
Jet screaming over Phil Spector’s head at LAX.

La Jetee (1962)
Chris Marker’s photo-film features a protagonist obsessed with a childhood memory of Orly Airport.

Pushing this in a slightly different direction, the new picture Catch Me if You Can was partly filmed at Kennedy Airport. More specifically, at Eero Saarinen’s 1962 TWA terminal. For a movie trying to revisit the verve and glamor of the young Jet Age, this modernist masterpiece is the perfect backdrop.

Following the evolution of airport architecture through the 1960s, one notices a progression from bland utilitarianism, to proud ideal and back again. The dawn of commercial flight gave us barns and wood-frame hangars, followed in the ’30s by exalted structures built with the spirit and permanence of railroad terminals (pay a visit some time to Lunken Field in Cincinnati). But then as the number of passengers soared and airports required greater size and expandability, we saw the more strict, unimaginative deference to the lowest common denominators of cost control and ease of construction.

Such a statement is a bit disingenuous, as architectural language, of course, speaks to its time, and today’s grimy hallways and soot-stained girders were yesterday’s stunning achievements (St. Louis, anyone?). But the era of the concourse was born, and the airport ceased to exist as symbol or spectacle. Unfortunate, really, for as any lover of air travel will tell you: It’s the departure, stupid.

JFK, known as Idlewild Airport until 1963, was and remains unlike most large airports. Rather than relying on a central terminal or cluster of concourses, passengers board and deplane around a necklace of autonomous buildings. Each of these, at least in theory, was to incorporate some representative motif of their respective landlord airlines.

Saarinen’s TWA, not unlike the spidery “Theme Building” at LAX, conceived at the same time, became eccentric icons. Not necessarily because of their inherent innovation or uniqueness, but because they returned a sense of identity to the modern airport, a vitality that would lend itself in the years to come to a host of showcase facilities around the world.

Saarinen, who also built the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the sweepingly beautiful central terminal at Washington Dulles, described his TWA design as “all one thing.” The lobby is a fluid, unified sculpture of a space — wildly futuristic yet firmly organic at the same time, overhung by a cantilevered ceiling rising from the center like huge wings.

In the mid-1990s I worked in that building — based there with the commuter affiliate of TWA. Sometimes I’d sit in the second-story restaurant looking down into the lobby. I’d watch the people below — the gangs of kids in sandals who cared and knew nothing of the place, eyes locked on their copies of Details or Spin, waiting for final call to St. Louis or Rome or Tel Aviv. The terminal was a decrepit relic by then, undersized and dirty, with a sense of doom hanging in the air. Sparrows and starlings lived in the yellowed rafters and would swoop around grabbing up crumbs from under the tables.

But in the movie it looks great again.

Now unoccupied after TWA was subsumed by American Airlines, the structure’s fate is being arbitrated between preservationists and Port Authority bureaucrats.

To help the cause try:

Anyway, if you’re still not inspired and have some time to kill, go across Queens to La Guardia where you can relish the gleaming Deco doors of the Marine Air Terminal (1939), formerly the property of Pan Am and now directly adjacent to the Delta Shuttle. Inside the rotunda is a 360 degree history-of-flight mural and cutaway of an old Pan Am flying boat.

Which isn’t to dwell too haughtily in the past, as some of the newest airport projects are among the most resplendent. Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, for instance, and the recently completed international terminal at San Francisco, the largest in North America. The latter’s interior was described by one critic as “achingly boring,” but the exterior façade, with its metal latticework and giant horizontal louvers, is nonetheless dazzling. Or, my favorite, British Airways’ sublimely ultra-modern World Cargo Centre at Heathrow.

On a smaller scale, how many of you have ever seen Roanoke Regional Airport in west central Virginia? Brick archways and exposed girders offer the look and personality of a renovated Blue Ridge warehouse. It’s a pure faux, Applebee’s style of downhome, but the effect is disarmingly comfortable. Much in the way Baltimore’s Camden Yards works for baseball, Roanoke’s retro works for airports.

But anyway, see how this happens — art, architecture, geography, all pulled together? I once described the underlying gravity of air travel as “weepy culture bridging,” but I think the point is simple enough to accept. My job isn’t to bore you with stats or specs about the wingspan of a 747 (211 feet), but to draw in and appease a more general sense of curiosity. Is it working? Not sure what kind of crossover appeal I’ve got going, but trust me there’s more to airports than concrete and crowds, and more to airplanes than machinery and testosterone.

This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.