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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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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In “The Artist’s Garden”

“The Artist’s Garden: American Impressionism and the Garden Movement, 1887-1920”, is a terrific exhibition showcasing American painting, drawing, design, and photography during a period when the idea of American home life changed completely. With greater wealth and greater amounts of free time on their hands, middle class Americans began to make their homes into places where the outside was just as cared for as the inside. Your teak patio furniture, trellis hung with wisteria, and stamped concrete garden pavers grew out of this change in attitude toward what gardens, and indeed being outdoors, was all about.

The first observation to be made is that this is a very attractive, easy to like exhibition. One could be forgiven for thinking, at first glance, that this is merely an assemblage of paintings of pretty women and flowers, colorful glass objects, and tiny photographs. Yet as one moves through the rooms, the idea takes hold of what a profound shift in thinking the American psyche underwent during the late 19th and early 20thcenturies.

Until a century ago, most Americans used the land surrounding their homes primarily for growing their own food and keeping livestock – Pauline Wayne, the last cow to graze on the White House lawn, departed for Wisconsin in 1913. By the middle of the 19thcentury however, a significant ground shift was beginning to take place in the relationship of man to the land, which is well-documented in this exhibition. The barn yard gradually became the back yard, a haven from the brave but ugly new world of belching factory smokestacks and clanging streetcars.

This change in attitude toward the use of one’s property went hand-in-glove with the effort to try to beautify American cities. Students of architecture and urban planning will be familiar with the fruits of this greater movement. Temporary installations such as the Philadelphia Bicentennial Exposition of 1876, the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, and the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1905, had permanent echoes across the American landscape, from Central Park in New York, to the Macmillan Plan and the National Mall here in Washington.

While your average, middle class American could not dream of achieving anything similar with their more modest means and surroundings, writers and artists still wanted to encourage those of more ordinary means to make their home gardens as beautiful as possible, as a way of fostering civic pride and cleanliness. It was all very well to construct grand boulevards and expansive parks in American towns and cities.  If they led to ramshackle houses whose grounds consisted of little more than chicken coops and piles of dirt however, the whole “effect” which these reformers were trying to achieve would be lost.

The strength of this exhibition is not only in some of the individual paintings, sculptures, and decorative art objects, but also in stepping back and taking a look around at the America which this show evokes as a whole. What is particularly telling is that fact that on the whole, the lifestyle evoked by this exhibition is not at all unfamiliar to us, even more than a century later.  True, we do not dress as the people in these images do, and our homes and gardens may be somewhat less fussy than those celebrated in some of these images.

Yet even though generations have passed, we still continue to hold to the ideals of making our home and garden simultaneously a place to relax and to show off – ideals which were fostered by the artists and designers featured in this exposition. Thus the painting of a lady reading a letter at her dining room table, silhouetted by open French doors leading onto a sunny garden patio shaded by a pergola, with some slight alterations could come out of a contemporary magazine spread. The fact that I daresay many of my readers spend their Saturdays mowing lawns, pulling weeds, pruning shrubs, and so on, none of which has anything to do with the production of food and everything to do with what it means to be in the American middle class, originally comes from the era which produced these works of art.

Rather than comment on the individual pieces in the exhibition, if you care to follow me on Instagram, later today I will be posting some photos I took of a number of pieces in the show; just visit this link:

https://instagram.com/wbdnewton/

“The Artist’s Garden” is at The Chrysler until September 6th; it then travels to The Reynolda House in North Carolina, on to The Huntington Library in California, and finally to the Griswold Museum in Connecticut. Whether or not you are particularly interested in American impressionism, this show is a wonderful evocation of a world which, though now long-gone, still has a profound influence on how Americans live and see their homes today.

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