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National Airlines Terminal

Copyright Gil Amiaga
Copyright Gil Amiaga

This terminal at Idlewild Airport, now JFK International, was the winning entry in a design competition to accommodate ten domestic airlines that did not have their own facilities. (The project was subsequently rededicated for the exclusive use of National Airlines). Rather than compete with highly expressive terminals nearby, a neutral solution was conceived: a huge clear-span rectangular glass box revealed as a whole, serenely and without confusion, to masses of people in transit.

Innovative at the time, although standard practice now, inbound and outbound circulation was separated for optimum movement and minimal delay. Departing passengers entered the main building stretched 382 feet along the airport roadway. Checking their baggage curbside, protected by the 23-foot roof overhang, travelers proceeded to ticket counters inside and then on to a circular satellite with a waiting area and six boarding gates. Arriving passengers at the opposite end of the terminal deboarded into a separate satellite with a short bridge to baggage claim (expedited by an advanced conveyor system). Their luggage retrieved, incoming travelers proceeded to a dedicated roadway on the airfield side of the terminal for ground transportation out of the airport. The split roadway system doubled curbside access for unprecedented loading and unloading ease.

The design is an irreducible statement of space, form, structure, and precision detailing in which every space, building element, and joint is interconnected as outlined of the terminal’s ceiling. The great steel truss roof structure is supported on architectural concrete columns, each topped by a roller bearing that permits thermal expansion of the roof. The innovative curtain wall is suspended from the roof and braced by glass stabilizers set at right angles to better strengthen the facade against jet engines. An air distribution duct system is housed in an aluminum-clad horizontal between the upper and lower glass walls.


Shaded plan / Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

In 1972, the project received the Concrete Industry Board Award and also the Albert S. Bard Award from the City Club of New York.

The terminal was demolished in 2011 to permit expansion of Kennedy Airport’s international facilities.

Design Team: I. M. Pei, Design Partner; Kellogg Wong and Kenneth D.B. Carruthers, Design Architects
I. M. Pei & Associates