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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A Message from Mrs. Kennedy

Fifty years ago yesterday, First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy went on camera for the first time following the assassination and funeral of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, to thank the nation for the outpouring of support she and her children received.  This brief film was shown around the country in movie theatres as a newsreel, and exists in two different versions – one showing Mrs. Kennedy seated with Robert and Edward Kennedy, and the other of her shown from the side.  Both are worth watching, since the effect on the viewer, or at least on this viewer, changes based on the angle, the lighting, and the closeness of the camera lens.

Now the Kennedy Library in Massachusetts has announced that more of those very condolence messages which Mrs. Kennedy received will be made available to scholars and researchers.  Some items in the collection are quite remarkable indeed. For example, there is a letter from the mother of one of the four little girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama only a few months before.

Whatever one thinks of the Kennedys, politically or otherwise, anyone who has experienced a great loss in their life can appreciate how these pieces of paper – cards, notes, letters, photographs – are simultaneously both hurtful and helpful.  They hurt, obviously, because the reader is reminded of their loss, and can be reminded of it again and again, should they choose to hold on to the documents.  Yet at the same time they can help, because they also remind the sufferer that they are not alone, whatever it is they may be going through.  It is then when humanity and decency are so important, in those moments when the widow or orphan is feeling they have nothing to hold on to as they attempt to go on with their lives.

Although JFK’s assassination was over 50 years ago, the images and words which Americans associate with that event continue to have an impact on the national consciousness. This message by Mrs. Kennedy was only about a minute long, and yet when one considers what had happened less than two months earlier – and the fact that she was only 34 years old at the time – her grace was truly remarkable.  It reinforced the public’s perception of her bravery as a young widow in overwhelming circumstances.  Yet it also showed that she really did appreciate the prayers and encouragement she received, and that she felt a duty to acknowledge that kindness publicly. It is quite a piece of history.

Mrs. Kennedy thanks the American people for their condolences

Mrs. Kennedy thanks the American people for their condolences