TWA Terminal: Part 2

As Promised, Part 2 of the TWA terminal restoration photographs.

Abba Tor speaks deliberately, and with a hint of nostalgia, about his long career as an engineer. He matter-of-factly mentions former colleagues and architectural icons like Louis Kahn, Eero Saarinen, Charles Correa, and Kevin Roche and former projects like the Yale Mellon Center for British Studies, the TWA Terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and the Permanent Mission of India to the U.N. As Tor’s story unfolds, it becomes evident that he lives for a challenge, which might explain why he gravitated towards architects who consistently pushed the boundaries of their craft and demanded an engineer who could help them accomplish their vision.
Tor’s first major challenge came in 1957 when he began work on the TWA Terminal as an engineer with the Amman and Whitney team; he was 33 years old. He had never worked with the project’s designer, Eero Saarinen, before, but he knew of his work.

“Saarinen was a shape-giver,” Tor recalls. “He was always searching for the right form for the building involved…and sometimes the structural aspects of his work did not easily fall into logical engineering solutions. You had to kind of argue your way into it; so there was always a certain element of tension, but it was the kind of tension that brought out the possibility of creative solutions and compromises.”

One of the particularly important “compromises” occurred in the project’s early stages. Saarinen’s original design called for the entire roof—all 1.4 acres of it—to be one continuous undulating shape; a design concept often referred to irreverently by some as the “flying brassiere.”

“We had to convince him and his people that the roof needed joints and separation because it was not possible to have such a large area of concrete poured without the concrete shrinking, which would lead to cracking later on,” Tor explains. Tor proposed that joints be introduced between the shells. This was done and the joints served as another function as the building’s three-foot-wide skylights.

While the skylights were an example of the creative solutions developed for the building, Tor recalls that there were certain times where Saarinen’s “form-giving” overrode engineering considerations. “As a designer, Saarinen was very honest about his vision for a building. [So I found that] the way [to work] with him was to tell him that the following design features have such-and-such implications and then leave the decision to him,” notes Tor. “One had to be honest both ways. He had to be honest with me and I had to be honest with him.”

This honesty and professional respect resulted in the wing-like roof and the swooping concrete vaults of the TWA Terminal. Tor remembers the day after all of the formwork and scaffolding were removed and the 1.4 acre roof was freed to rest on its four supports: “I was standing with Saarinen under the roof and as he looked up he turned to me and said, ‘Mr. Tor, if this roof were to fall on my head now, I would die a happy man.” It is evident from the smile that can be heard across the phone line that this is a compliment Tor holds dear.

“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,” Tor muses; and he was correct because TWA was just the beginning. Tor went on to work with Saarinen on the Deere and Company Administrative Center and the Vivian Beaumont Repertory Theater at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York. Saarinen’s office in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan also ended up being something of a matchmaker between Tor and his future business partner Henry Pfisterer. In 1964, Tor was looking to move on from Amman and Whitney whose focus was shifting from architecture to civil work for major defense projects—as Tor describes it, “lots of concrete being poured into lots of big holes.” At the suggestion of John Dinkeloo, Tor contacted Pfisterer, who had worked with Saarinen on Yale University’s Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges and the North Christian Church. The “match” resulted in the founding of the engineering firm Pfisterer, Tor & Associates. As a partner of in that firm, Tor continued his impressive career working with some of the 20th century’s iconic designers. Tor laughs as he remembers his collaborations with one of these icons: Louis Kahn. “It was a pleasure to work with [Kahn] because he had an uncanny way of getting the most out of you by pushing you and making you feel good about being pushed. I worked with him and I took all kinds of abuse willingly!”

Today, Tor is an associate professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture. He co-teaches a course called Advanced Building Systems, which he describes as an “introduction to the real world.” The studio course gives students a defined project scope, including the building’s footprint, function, height, etc., and asks them to develop, up to a certain level, the technological aspects of the building, i.e. the structure, air-handling systems, and curtainwall. Tor explains that the course is meant to teach architects to think along with the consulting engineer, a skill that he has certainly mastered.

During a project with Kahn, Tor came to the defense of his craft after Kahn, in a moment of exasperation at being told what he could or could not do, had declared "you engineers are all the same; you are like sausage cutters!" "I said to him, 'Lou, we are not sausage cutters, we are more like the male dancers in a classical ballet. Sometimes we jump and soar, and other times we stand there firmly on the stage and when we see the ballerina take the big leap we catch her in mid-air, we turn her around, and we make sure that she lands gracefully and doesn’t fall on her face.'" And as you look at the TWA Terminal you can see exactly what he means.

--From The National Building Museum

Take a look at Part 1.


  1. I believe the stair cases in the TWA Building were done by DeVoe Iron Works,Inc. 33-35 Ninth Street, L.I.C., N.Y. This was a family owned business comprised of 3 brothers Stephen, Henry (aka Chub) & Vincent DeVoe. This company was known for their expertise in steel staircases & ornamental iron works. The staircase at Leonard's of Great Neck, NY is one example of a DIW staircase. How many brides have securely walked down that staircase in the past 50 years? DIW also did the iron staircase outside I.M. Peis home in NYC. Apparently the company did a staircase for a family friend who lived in the city and Mr. Pei wanted that steel manufacturer to do his staircase. In 1965 DIW received the Stair Of the Year Award at the Steel Manufacturers Convention. The exact staircase is located in their companys office building across the street from the plant at 33-42 9th Street in Long Island City. DIW was hired to build the award winning staircase in the home of architect W. Colby in Connecticut. The company dissolved in the late 1970's but their schools,churchs, office buildings, iron railings & staircases remain in several sections of New York & Long Island.

    1. Mary, thanks for this comment and story! I love hearing about how projects like this came together.

  2. Dear Tim Schenck,
    This post wonderfully captures the voice of my uncle, the late Abba Tor. As we grieve his loss this week, a number of his friends and relatives have been circulating the url so that we can remember him and others can get a sense of who he was.