An image of the St. louis airport during construction
On Friday April 22, 2011, a tornado touched down in St. Louis, causing significant damage to the main terminal and one of the concourses of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. You might wonder what this disaster has to do with the Archives of Michigan. The main terminal of Lambert was actually one of the first major projects undertaken by prominent Michigan architect Minoru Yamasaki. The Yamasaki collection, located here at the Archives, contains thousands of images covering over thirty years’ worth of projects, including the Lambert-St. Louis airport. In the aftermath of this disaster, I went through what we had on the main terminal to get a better idea of the damage to the structure.
A Brief History
Commissioned in 1951, Yamasaki took design cues from Grand Central Station in New York in order to create the Lambert-St. Louis terminal, dubbing prior air terminals he visited as disappointing in the message he felt air travel should convey. “At Grand Central you had a sense of welcoming, this great high room somehow gave you the sense of arrival to an important city.” Using that as a foundation, Yamasaki created what arguably could be called the first modern air terminal. By deciding to use a shell as the primary structure of the terminal, Yamasaki found a simple yet elegant way to invoke the open ceiling design that had so impressed him. Projected additions to the structure could also be seamlessly added due to the simplicity of the design.
The interior of the Lambert-St. Louis airport.
Looking back over his career, Yamasaki expressed a few regrets about the design of the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. Commenting that if he had not been so inexperienced with the shell design or so hesitant to spend more on materials, he would have been bolder with his final product. He also expressed displeasure at renovations that occurred at the terminal in the 1970s. Even with these complaints, Yamasaki felt positively about the experience as a whole:
“There was a very basic lesson to be learned from this, one that has made me much more aware of the need to consider the design of every element of a building. The unity that can be evolved through such careful study contributes much to the sense of order and serenity so necessary in buildings; it seems to me that the architect, by bringing order to people’s lives, can make a significant contribution to a contemporary society that is too often fragmented and discordant.”
This simple lesson that Yamasaki learned during the construction of the Lambert-St. Louis main terminal developed into a philosophy that guided him through the rest of his career.
An exterior view of the Lambert-St. Louis Airport.