The Pregnant Oyster, Reborn

Yesterday New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced at a press conference that LaGuardia Airport in Queens, long derided as one of the worst airports in America, will be demolished, and a brand-new, unified terminal will be built in its place. Understandably, this rather bold step captured most of the headlines about the story.  However the buried lede was the news that the TWA Flight Center at JFK International Airport, known more familiarly as the old “TWA Terminal”, or more colloquially as “The Pregnant Oyster” because of its curvaceous, mollusk-like design, is about to become an hotel.

Designed by architect Eero Saarinen (1910-1961), probably best known for the St. Louis Arch, the TWA Terminal was but one of the architect’s visions for the future of air travel. His TWA Terminal is almost something out of a space ship, with pod seating and NASA-like terminal monitors. Here in Washington, Saarinen’s far less trendy-looking terminal at Dulles is an elegant, swooping paean to flight, and the hopes of a technologically advanced society. At night its curtain of glass gleams across the open Virginia fields like a secular Chartres, illuminated from within. 

While in real life, neither of these buildings ever worked quite as Saarinen had hoped, they do speak to the visionary ideals of the U.S. in the Post-War period.  Americans saw their influence spreading around the globe, and with the rapidly expanding middle class, air travel became more possible for more people. The reader may be very interested, then, to see a contemporary short film of this era, created for Saarinen by two of the most famous designers in American history, about what air travel was supposed to be like.

In 1958, Charles (1907-1978) and Ray Eames (1912-1988) put together a presentation for Saarinen called “The Expanding Airport”, to help sell the architect’s concept for Dulles.  Saarinen needed something that would explain his rather daring ideas for how a modern airport ought to work, in ways that skeptical officials would be able to understand and embrace. Using illustrations, photographs, and rather charming animation, along with a very relaxed-sounding voiceover worthy of a “Mad Men” advertising campaign, The Eames’ film worked a treat, and Saarinen’s overall concept was adopted.  Even if you have little interest in the history of transportation, the short is worth watching for the design and nostalgia aspects alone.

While some of the terms in the film differ from present use – “hand luggage” instead of “carry-on”, for example – it’s clear that the problems raised by jet aircraft were already starting to cause headaches in the Eisenhower era.  We can see how our grandparents puzzled over many of the same concerns which continue to plague air travel even now, such as the enormous distances passengers must often walk when changing planes or collecting their luggage.  (Incidentally, take note of the rather eyebrow-raising animation of the passenger picking up a copy of Playboy in the concession stand before having to run for his gate.) 

The idea of “detachable fingers” which comes up midway through the film seems rather odd today, even if innovative back then. Modular design was a keynote of the Modernist era, and the ideal of interchangeability was often pursued rather too relentlessly. The idea that a so-called “people mover” – a term which even now makes one wince – will “be best known for its convenience and feeling of luxury” may have been the case when these conveyances were new, but toward the end of their run they felt more like buses crossed with Imperial Walkers from Star Wars, and not in a good way.  They were finally retired from service about 5 years ago, if memory serves.

While the Dulles terminal is still very much in use, and will likely experience explosive growth once the Silver Line of the Metro reaches it in the next couple of years, the Pregnant Oyster has lain mothballed in New York for quite some time now. What Saarinen would make of his TWA building being turned into an hotel, who knows. As an airport terminal it can no longer serve the purpose for which it was intended, perhaps because, unlike Dulles, the design was too self-contained to be able to be effectively extended ad infinitum.

Nevertheless, one can imagine that he would be pleased to see that the New York-area airports are all going to be looked at afresh, and that his signature work will take on new life as a lodging and dining venue for those who continue to appreciate its curvy charms.

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On Cowardly Lying

Yesterday at brunch, as my (most congenial) companions and I were nearing the end of our meal, I was disturbed by something taking place across from us. We were seated on a covered, outdoor patio at long tables with benches, rather than chairs.  A couple in their mid-20’s arrived midway through our meal, and sat on the other side of the patio from us. He was wearing a polo shirt and shorts; she was wearing a fitted, diaphanous skirt, whose hem touched the floor.

At one point I overheard her comment to him that she wanted to switch the bench she was sitting on for another. She then got up, dragged the bench she had been sitting on across the patio, and dragged another bench back to their table. Her skirt being less than ideal for performing manual labor, and the benches being rather heavy, this task was performed in a somewhat awkward, ungainly manner.

What I found particularly disturbing about this incident was the fact that while all of this was going on, her hale and hearty, sporty boyfriend continued to eat his appetizer, and did not make a move or even offer to assist her. Rather, he left her to do all of the work herself, despite the fact that he was in a far better position to lend a hand moving furniture about, given what she was wearing, and that the bench she wanted was one directly across from him.  One was tempted to comment to her, upon leaving the restaurant, “You know, this fellow is probably not someone you want to continue seeing.”

Now I admit, it’s entirely possible that the boyfriend did nothing because, based on previous experience, she may have informed him that she does not like men to do things for her, such as open a door or pull out a chair – a mindset which has its own set of problems. However I rather suspect, from what I observed, that he was quite the dominant person in the relationship. He was simply more interested in eating his boudin balls, than in attending to her needs.

Does this mean that I am judging? You bet I am. For as it happens, I’m not only judging this couple – I’m also judging myself.

When I saw that she was struggling, why didn’t *I* get up and assist her? Why didn’t I intervene, even at the risk of making him seem like the fool which he so clearly was? Couldn’t I have even voiced, “Would you like a hand?”

The answer is, sadly, that we have all embraced cowardice as the social norm, in our uncivilized culture. We roar and wail in our various forms of media about all sorts of perceived injustices and slights. Nevertheless, when we come face-to-face with a situation in which a wrong is taking place, chances are fairly good that we will do nothing. We lie to ourselves, and think that we are brave, because we post a comment that takes a stand on an issue, when the fact is that in the crunch, most of us back away. 

You’ve probably read or heard recent reports about a young man who was stabbed to death on the DC Metro a few weeks ago in broad daylight, on a train full of passengers, only one of whom even dared to say anything to his attacker. The commentariat’s outrage machine, full of armchair quarterbacks as it always is, exploded with nonsense along the lines of, “I would have done x, had I been there.” The truth is, upon finding themselves in a similar situation, most would have done exactly the same thing as the other passengers on the train: embraced their inner coward, sat there quietly, and done nothing.

I do not suggest that all of us need to jump into a knife fight, the next time we come across one in our travels. However I do argue that we need to stop lying to ourselves and recover our sense of courage, if we are also to recover our culture. There is little real bravery in hitting a “like” button, particularly if you never take any action in real life.

Sometimes, yes, it is wiser to keep our mouth shut, and our opinions to ourselves. It would be foolish to think we ought to do so ALL the time. Otherwise, we train ourselves and others to believe that intervention is always wrong, unless the circumstances are such that we will be quite safe, whether in real life, or behind an electronic screen.

We do not need any kind of bizarre, social vigilantism, in which we dash about spreading our jackets over mud puddles for perfect strangers or breaking up fights between drunken louts we see sprawling about in an alleyway. Yet we could make the effort to be a little bit braver, a little bit more conscious of those around us, particularly those in need of assistance. For while it is true that we must “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” it is also true that, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto Me.” 

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When Fonts Fail: DC’s Sad Attempt To Be Hip

City officialdom here in the Nation’s Capital recently decided that there needs to be greater uniformity in the graphic design elements of its public communications. To that end, the Mayor’s office has published a set of guidelines for the various municipal departments and offices, with respect to the look of documents which will be released to the public. These guidelines include such matters as color choice, the placement of official seals, and font selection. While the body of external communications will have the possibility of at least some variety in typeface, when it comes to the titling – such as in posters or cover pages – there is now only one unbreakable commandment: “Thou Shalt Only Use Neutra.” 

The work of Richard Neutra, the midcentury architect of the California “those who live in glass houses” international style, for whom the font is named, is perfectly acceptable in certain settings. A Neutra-designed building is well-suited, for example, as the home of a retired pit boss who used to get plastered with the Rat Pack back in the day, and his third wife, who was once little more than a stripper but still calls herself an “actress”, despite never having picked up a work of Molière or Pirandello in her life. Neutra’s work is similarly appropriate for a church designed for suburban Angelenos who aren’t particularly interested in God, but do want plenty of parking when they get together to socialize and feel better about themselves on Sunday mornings while drinking Starbucks.

Despite his long career designing the kinds of buildings which look like sets for 1970’s sexploitation films in places like Palm Springs or Orange County, Neutra never – thank goodness – built anything in Washington, D.C. Thus it is particularly curious that a font honoring his style would be selected as the official typeface for a city which features absolutely none of his work. It is a bit like Boston deciding that its official communications would feature a typeface evoking the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

As The Washingtonian points out, Neutra is the same font used by Shake Shack, the Nationals, Wendy’s, and the regrettable television series, ‘Girls”. Presumably then, we are to understand that the average Washingtonian is a morbidly obese, frequent fast food consumer, who loves baseball but is lacking in any concept of sexual morality or good taste. Perhaps this is indeed an accurate assessment of the average citizen of #thistown, but that is certainly not something to be proud of.

Now, I am not of the school that says all sans-serif fonts are bad. In fact, as you may note herein, the fonts employed on this site are sans-serif. This was a deliberate decision on my part, the idea being that my occasionally irascible (and often quite pretentious) tone might be somewhat softened by my not employing a typeface more obviously attuned to the subject matter and tone of this blog. Otherwise, you would likely be trying to decipher this post in something like Bernhard Modern or Kunstler Script. Nor, as it happens, do I have a problem with the Neutral font per se, although I find it unremarkable as a design.

Yet I do take exception to government adopting a public face which displays false informality, by attempting to seem “hip”. This is what the use of a sans-serif such as Neutra implies, when rolled out in official communications. I want my government to provide the public services I pay for, such as traffic cops and street cleaning and rat catchers. I do not want it to be my buddy, let alone invite me to a key swap party in the Valley. Sadly, this increasingly tacky city appears to be reflecting an increasingly tacky society all too well.

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