Monday, October 14, 2013

Walking Around History - The TWA Flight Center

Inside the TWA Flight Center - Sunday, October 13, 2013
As part of the annual citywide Open House New York event, the Trans World Airlines (TWA) Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport is open to the public for just one day. Decommissioned in 2001 following the demise of the airline, it now holds a place on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places (a status which other classic terminals of the airport failed to gain). Now that I live in New York, it would have been remiss of me (aviation geek that I am) to miss an opportunity to visit this revered piece of aeronautical history. And I'm so happy that I did!
Passenger Departing/Arriving Tube

After first arriving at the Flight Center's passenger tube from JetBlue Airways' Terminal 5, I immediately felt a sense of nostalgia. The subdued lighting in the curved tube complete with deep red carpeting provided a dramatic entry into Eero Saarinen's architectural masterpiece. Within the building, quotes from the architect are displayed throughout. Saarinen (who died before final completion) said of the design, "We wanted passengers passing through the building to experience a fully-designed environment in which each part arises from another and everything belongs to the same formal world." It was easy for me to imagine that his goal was achieved, as the event was packed with fellow aviation and architecture enthusiasts and almost resembled what a typical day may have been during normal operations at the Flight Center.

I was somewhat aware of the uniqueness in design involved in this building: the outside shell indicative of a bird's wings and the curvilinear roof that is held together by malleable curved tiles created by Saarinen himself. They're specifics that anyone could have known before setting foot inside the building but to see how it all came together visually is even more remarkable. The smooth, contoured lines and the openness within is very evident. Plenty of seating areas and lounges provide images into those golden years of commercial airline travel. Clearly missing from the terminal are the advertisements that are now so commonly placed on the wall or hanging from ceilings. Here, the ads were restricted to the duty free shop (including one for Marlboro cigarettes). The differences are more than just subtle nuances. They highlight the logistical changes that have occurred in transporting people through airports.

Curvilinear Concrete Roof and Exits
As beautiful and storied as the TWA Flight Center is, it is evident as to why it would not work for today's air travel demands. It's closure came a few months after the September 11th attacks and the subsequent changes to airport security. A larger traveling public called for larger security checkpoint zones. American Airlines tried to utilize the terminal during the merger of TWA into that airline, but after a few months they found that it worked against their needs. Planes are larger and take up more space, and there are more of them than there were in 1962. Feasibility alone rendered the TWA Flight Center useless for its intended purpose (JetBlue passed on using the existing space and built its T5 complex behind the Flight Center). Still, there are some ideas being discussed for future use of the building. A hotel, conference center, or some future use by JetBlue Airways have all been proposed at one time or another. Whatever will be the next chapter of the TWA Flight Center, I am grateful that its existence is assured (for now) and judging from the attendance at the event, many share that same sentiment. Including this building, only Terminals 2 and 7 remain as original footprints to JFK. From a business perspective, expansion or a complete rebuild of an airport terminal based on operational need is sometimes necessary, but we are fortunate to have a physical representation of what air travel was like so long ago. For those of us who we're never able to experience it for ourselves, it's the next best thing.
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