The majestic mid-century TWA Terminal at JFK Airport is considered to be one of architect Eero Saarinen's masterpieces of design. But the building might not have had its signature swooping lines without the help of engineer Abba Tor. Tor passed away last week, on February 11, in his home on Hastings-on-Hudson, and, in his obituary, the NY Times has wonderful descriptions about his work on the NYC landmark.
Tor, who died of cardiac arrest, apparently argued with Saarinen about how the soaring roof would be constructed: He wanted it to be constructed from four pieces, while the architect wanted it to be joist-less and concrete poured in 55,000-square-foot piece. Tor warned that it would certainly crack, telling a Saarinen associate, "Concrete is dumb." From the Times:
Engineering necessity gave birth to one of the most inviting facets of the terminal’s undulating interior: ribbons of skylights along the joints that were opened among the four vaults. The skylights turn what might have been a heavy blanket into something luminous and billowy.
“Once they were told that they have to make joints, because the structure cannot be poured all at once, they said, ‘Let’s use this requirement to let some light in,’ ” Mr. Tor told Mr. Ringli. “There was a kind of — I would say — tension between the architect and the engineer. But it was a beneficial tension.”
Another example of beneficial tension is the four great sloping Y-shaped buttresses that support the outside corners of the converging vaults. Originally, they were to have been vertical stilts, but wound up looking more like Henry Moore sculptures than hard-working structural elements.
Mr. Tor and Mr. Saarinen stood together under the terminal’s 6,000-ton roof in 1960, just after the formwork and scaffolding needed for the concrete pour had been removed. The vaults held up.
“Mr. Tor,” Mr. Saarinen said, “if this roof were to fall on my head now, I would die a happy man.” He died in 1961, before the building was complete.
The building opened in 1962, and Tor said in a 2008 interview, "This project was a launch for me. Once I [finished the TWA Terminal] I felt that I could tackle anything; it gave me a lot of confidence. I was a fairly young engineer then and I don’t know if I would have had the gall or the courage to tackle the project if I was older."
The TWA Terminal is now being reimagined as a hotel; developer Tyler Morse told the Times that he recently spoke to Tor, "Abba was quoting the vector forces on various points of the four lobes, both individually and where they come together. It was as if he had just finished the engineering calculations that week, not 60 years ago."