In the late 1950s, at the height of the Jet Age, architect Eero Saarinen designed two airport terminals that would come to define an era: the TWA terminal at Idlewild Airport (later JFK) in New York; and Dulles International Airport in suburban Washington, DC. At the time flying was viewed as an exciting adventure, and the swooping forms of both buildings were meant to capture the thrill of the airborne moment. The new Terminal E at Logan International Airport harkens back to this period with an avian-inspired building that is the new international gateway to Boston.
Flying, international and domestic, isn’t “exciting” anymore — it’s at best stressful and at worst hellish. But the Massachusetts Port Authority and its architects have sought, admirably, to craft a bit of important infrastructure that is both a visual rush and considerate of passenger stress and strain.
“We have a varied group of passengers using Terminal E, the international arrival and departure hall, and have worked hard to address their needs,” said Luciana Burdi, director of capital programs and environment affairs at Massport in a recent interview at the new facility. “There are people who like to work and do what I call cocooning. But we also have a sensory room meant to calm those with high flight anxiety. It even has an airplane simulation room that replicates the flight experience.”
Massport’s Request for Qualifications for the $800 million project called for a “visionary” architect, and that role was assumed by luis vidal + architects of Madrid. Firm founder Vidal is designing airports all over Europe and the Western Hemisphere, from Barcelona to Pittsburgh to Santiago, Chile. Terminal E’s bright red exterior, which resembles the sheet metal of a new Ferrari, was the architect’s big move, but one he insisted was made in a Boston context.
“Red is very Boston,” Vidal said during a tour last month. “Your institutions like Harvard and MIT are red. The city’s brick buildings are red. The sports teams are red and the leaves on the trees in the fall are red. All of that is what inspired us to choose a dynamic color, not a static color.”
Computer imagery, not yet invented in Saarinen’s time, is what made the realization of this seemingly free-form shape possible. Vidal, who collaborated on the project with international firm AECOM as architect of record, explained the genesis of the design: “The shape came both from the site and the program. There are no right angles. The way the passengers flow helped dictate the form. In the great hall, the main interior space, there are two ‘streets’ which curve and which are bathed in light from skylights and clerestory windows.”
The great hall is indeed spectacular. It represents a phenomenon that architects call “compression and expansion.” As you move along the constricted spaces of the older part of the terminal, you can see the great hall in the distance. When you arrive, the height of the entire space becomes evident and fully legible. Large V-shaped concrete and steel trusses make the building’s structure visible. The two parallel curved “streets” present the various amenities on offer to the passenger departing Boston. Like a great Edwardian train station, the space hums with activity. Approximately 70,000 square feet of the existing Terminal E was salvaged and renovated, including a main corridor that leads to the great hall. The new building comprises 320,000 square feet.
Subtle creative touches abound. A staircase leading to the airline club level is accessed in the heart of the great hall, not tucked off in some dark corner. Terrazzo flooring has intriguing patterns which tie it to the flooring in Logan’s Terminal A.
The building is on track to earn the US Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification and has numerous environmentally friendly features. First, the orientation of the building is meant to capture the most northern light, thereby reducing the need for interior lighting. There’s even photovoltaic glass, which generates electricity.
Approximately $50 million of the terminal’s cost came from the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill passed in 2021, Massport’s Burdi said. Did the taxpayers get their money’s worth?
I think they did. But the one thing about the project that I regret is that the great hall, the main interior space, services those departing Boston, not those arriving. I had occasion recently to experience the terminal as a traveler returning from Europe. In fact the passport control spaces have low ceilings and are unwelcoming, the polar opposite of the great hall with its soaring spaces.
The buildings crafted by Saarinen were for a more innocent era, full of optimism and wonder. We live in a more complicated world now, and the new Terminal E reflects this, while reminding us of the bracing and delirious infatuation with flying that existed three generations ago.
James McCown is an architectural journalist who lives in Newton. Rizzoli New York will publish his “The Home Office Reimagined: Places to Think, Reflect, Work, Dream and Wonder” early next year.