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.