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[Tvt News]TWA Takes Flight Again, Without Leaving the Ground

Now arriving: an imagined version of the Kennedy years. Photo: Scott Heins

For years, Eero Saarinen’s propeller-age TWA Flight Center sat forlornly at JFK like a pinioned bird, vacant, shabby, and useless. The airline went bust in 2001; four years later, JetBlue photobombed the original with its new Terminal 5, designed by Gensler, and briefly considered sprucing up the old building as an extra lobby serving the few design aficionados who would trade convenience for an aesthetically gratifying check-in. So it’s thrilling to see Saarinen’s cathedral of flight reopen as the lobby of MCR’s $265 million TWA Hotel, looking as pale and bright and smooth as it did 57 years ago. You can once again set your windup watch by the three-sided globular clock that hangs from the central vault, run your fingers over the speckled penny tiles, and sip an Old Fashioned in the sunken lounge. It all feels like a museum of 1962.

Idlewild Airport has utterly changed since the Kennedy administration, and so has the experience of flight. Once, we dressed up and savored the privilege of travel. Now we schlep, slump, and jam ourselves into ever-tighter slots. In the routine of mass migration, holding on to your dignity costs extra. Glamour is unthinkable.

the Art Nouveau, Gaudí, and Frank Gehry interiors where steel, glass, iron, and wood behave like draped fabric or viscous syrup. A second historical line links great concrete sculptures with thin walls that shimmy, wave, or spring into enormous domes: Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, for example; Pier Luigi Nervi’s Palazzetto dello Sport in Rome; and Toyo Ito’s Baroque Museum in Puebla, Mexico. And a third thread follows the Industrial Age’s architecture of speed from Fiat’s Lingotto factory, designed by Giacomo Mattè Trucco in the 1930s with a spiraling ramp up to a rooftop test track, to Bjarke Ingels’s proposal for a Hyperloop portal in Dubai. (In our time, when electronic speeds are measured in nanoseconds, moving people around takes roughly as long as it did 70 years ago. Curiously, the oldest of the modern transportation technologies, rail, has evolved the most in recent years, which is why our era’s architectural poets of forward motion, Zaha Hadid and Santiago Calatrava, have both designed high-speed train stations.)

“The Emperor of Ice Cream,” Saarinen formed his interiors into “concupiscent curds,” luscious white swirls like beaten egg whites or whipped cream, or polished marble limbs. That same year, Vladimir Nabokov published Lolita, in which the criminally lecherous Humbert Humbert whisks his nymphet off on a circuitous road trip: “Our route began with a series of wiggles and whorls in New England …”

The first visitors to the Flight Center, just a few years later, would have had to be pretty straitlaced not to notice the feminine attributes of an architecture with no right angles or straight lines. Travelers entered just beneath the canopy’s protruding nub. Flight information was displayed on a humanoid face raised on a slender, curving neck and framed in a concrete bob with a widow’s peak. At boarding time, passengers passed through scarlet-carpeted tubes that rose and dipped invitingly on the way to the gates. TWA capitalized on the subliminal raunch. In 1968, the company launched a line of disposable paper uniforms called “British wench,” “French cocktail,” “Roman toga,” and “Manhattan penthouse pajamas,” some of which are preserved in the hotel’s museum display. The retro toiletries bag found in each room includes a replica of an original in-flight goodie, a Band-Aid case bearing the slogan I’M STUCK ON TWA FLIGHT ATTENDANTS.

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