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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Farewell to I. M. Pei's Sundrome

Kennedy International Airport’s vacant Terminal 6, which was designed by architect I. M. Pei, is being demolished. The entire building will be a pile of rubble by the end of this month. Boarding gates are already gone.

Pei, probably best known for the pyramid addition to the Louvre, created the space he called the Sundrome in the late 1960s. Its simplicity is a perfect complement to the sweeping lines of Eero Saarinen's Trans World Airlines Flight Center next door, which has been preserved by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to the tune of $20 million, yet Terminal 6 will be razed, despite pleas from the architectural firm of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.

Henry N. Cobb, a partner at the firm, said that many architects talk of creating transparent spaces, but Pei actually achieved it. The white steel roof seems to float over faceted green glass. It rests on 16 enormous cylindrical concrete columns, eliminating the need for load-bearing walls. This allowed Pei to design an all-glass enclosure. One can look straight through the building to the other side. Rain is drained off the roof through the columns, eliminating the need for any visible ductwork.

Cobb said the Terminal 6 pavilion is “structurally sound and has proved highly adaptable to changing demands throughout four decades of use” by National Airways, which was acquired in 1980 by Pan American World Airways; by T.W.A., as an annex to the Saarinen terminal; and, finally, by JetBlue Airways, which moved into its own terminal in 2008.

Given Mr. Pei’s stature, the demolition of Terminal 6 may rank as the most significant loss of a transportation building in New York since Pennsylvania Station was demolished in the 1960s. According to Cobb, “This is not pure greed. This is the myopic view of engineers. They just can’t figure out how to reuse it, and they don’t put enough value on it to figure out how to reuse it.”

The demolition has been planned for quite some time. It is ironic that it is taking place when public interest in the jet-set era of the 1960s and early 70s is at a peak and that it coincides with the debut of the ABC drama Pan Am.

George Cserna/Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia


  1. Sad. I remember when new airports were like stepping into futuristic landscapes. It was part of the joy of the journey.

  2. For lack of vision, art is sacrificed. Sad.

  3. @DearHelenHartman and I dream lo-tech: Makes me think of Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi."

    Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone? In this case, they really are paving the site to put up a parking lot.