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!

Complex Beauty: Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet at the Cloisters

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I haven’t been to The Cloisters in about a million years (scientific!), and Sunday was a glorious early Autumn day in the city, so I figured it was about time to make the trek to Fort Tryon Park. An additional draw was the chance to experience Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet, a work I loved at PS1.

The piece is considered Cardiff’s masterwork. She recorded each member of a 40-part choir singing their individual parts of a 16th century motet and plays each recording on its own, dedicated speaker. The effect is gorgeous when you’re standing amongst the speakers, hitting you square in the chest in a way that most recordings of the human voice just don’t. And, as an additional layer of the experience, you can walk to each speaker and listen to the individual parts. I haven’t been to a choir performance in a while, but I don’t think they welcome audience members to walk from performer to performer.

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 At PS1, the speakers were arrayed in an empty, white-walled former classroom, with large windows letting light pour in. The work was surprising and interesting, and it was a delight to wander among the speakers after a beer at WarmUp last summer. At the Cloisters, Forty Part Motet is placed in the “Fuentidueña Chapel, which features the late twelfth-century apse from the church of San Martín at Fuentidueña, near Segovia, Spain.” The chapel is impressive, and has wonderful acoustics, but I actually found the setting distracted from the work. It put it into a religious context that, for someone who does not identify with that religion, made me feel like I should not be enjoying the piece as a work of art, but as a religious work. And it also pushed the piece into the realm of the heavy-handed and, dare I say, a bit cheesy.

That said, I still found the work inspiring, and admit that I probably wouldn’t have made it up to the Cloisters without it as a draw. The chapel was bustling with visitors on Sunday, and the galleries were well-attended. And even though I preferred the experience at PS1, there was some magic in hearing strains of the music filtering through the labyrinthine rooms and courtyards of the museum. It was a reminder of the lives many of the objects on display at the Cloisters had before they were in a museum, when they were in use, and that is a powerful thing.

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Forty Part Motet is the first contemporary piece to be shown at the Cloisters, which itself deserves more thought than I am qualified to give it. It will be on display at the Cloisters until December 8, and is definitely worth the long subway ride to northern Manhattan. After you visit, consider jumping on the M4 bus for a scenic ride down to the Met, same-day admission to which is included with your Cloisters ticket. (A slightly stranger spot to visit near the Cloisters is the Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, where the remains of Mother Cabrini, who was canonized in 1946, are displayed.)

The Tiniest Museum in NYC // Wandering the Lower East Side

This heat! I know. It sucks. After days of moving as little as possible in barely-air-conditioned rooms, I am itching to get out and wander a bit. Luckily, the heat is supposed to break on Sunday, and New Yorkers can take to the streets without fear of heat stroke once again.

A few weekends ago, E and I decided to stroll through some neighborhoods we don’t spend much time in: Chinatown and the Lower East Side. One of our stops was a teeny, tiny museum located in a freight elevator shaft in an alley in Tribeca. Sound fishy? It certainly felt a little fishy. But I am here to tell you that the museum is indeed real, and it’s pretty neat.

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It is usually open on weekends, but was unexpectedly closed the day we wandered through. (You can get updates on operating hours on the museum’s twitter feed.) Still, there is a window on the street that you can peer through, and a plaque posted on the building with a number you can call to access the audio guide. The collection is quirky, and the mundane objects are brought to life by the stories around them.

While you’re in the neighborhood, here are some other gems to check out: