Open House NY: The TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport

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Last October, I got to explore the TWA Flight Center as part of the 10th annual Open House NY Weekend, a glorious weekend in the city where architects, private residents, and organizations open their doors and let the public in, in order to raise awareness and appreciation for the city’s architectural landmarks and design treasures. They released the guide to this year’s weekend, and I was delighted to see the TWA Flight Center on the program again.

Closed since 2001, the TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport is currently empty and now ringed in by JetBlue’s shiny, new Terminal 5.  There have been many attempts to restore and repurpose the iconic space since then, but nothing has quite made it through (most recently, I’ve heard it’s going to be turned into a branch of the Standard Hotel).

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The flight center was dedicated in 1962, and is now recognized as a glorious icon of forward-thinking design. The architect, Eero Saarinen, designed the space for efficiency, realizing that the age of mass air travel was upon us. It was one of the first terminals to feature enclosed jetways (the glorious tubes shown in Catch Me if You Can), baggage carousels, a PA system, and closed circuit television. Unfortunately, as time went on, planes got bigger, passenger expectations changed, and the terminal just couldn’t handle the demands of modern airline traffic. When American Airlines bought TWA in 2001, following the airline’s extended financial troubles, the terminal was closed. In 1994, it was declared a historic landmark, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.

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I visited the Flight Center on a rainy morning last October, and fell in love immediately. I admit that I didn’t know much about it before trekking down to JFK, but it was absolutely worth the trip. The building’s streamlined, uplifted design makes you want to get in an airplane immediately, and the whiteness of the interior makes you feel like you’re already among the clouds. Huge windows in the seating area allow you to daydream about the destinations of planes you’re watching take off, and the many intimate corners of the terminal recall the romance of mid-century commercial air travel. And those tunnels! I can only imagine how it must have felt to pass through the long, sloping tunnels on your way to an airplane to adventures and exotic locales.

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Personally, I was struck by how different modern airport terminals feel compared to the atmosphere in the TWA Flight Center. Granted, a crowd of design dorks are different from a bunch of harried travelers, but still. On a recent trip, I had a layover in Atlanta where I wandered the airport for a few hours, thinking about how all airports feel basically the same, and how the cobbled-together terminals representing different eras somehow all feel like a mall, and a weird, liminal space all at once. When I travel by plane today, I feel transparent, and I can only ever grit my teeth and wait for it to be over. I can’t imagine that waiting for your flight on the luscious red upholstered benches in the TWA Flight Center could have felt that way; a visit to the terminal today is a glimpse into the days when plane travel felt glamorous.

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I hope that the Powers That Be settle on a fate for the TWA Flight Center soon. It’s a fascinating building that deserves more than occasional public use. The same way that Philip Johnson commented that enclosing the building by the JetBlue terminal was like tying a bird’s wings, leaving a building created for public use empty and stagnant is like slowly suffocating that bird. Public space should be active in order to remain relevant. And next weekend, you have a chance to activate the TWA Flight Center during the 2013 Open House NY Weekend. I won’t be able to make it this year, but I’ll be thinking of the flight center fondly on Sunday.

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P.S. If you like this, check out a few of the other old airline-specific terminals at JFK. Some super cool history and architecture there!