MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS: The TWA Hotel is a Destination in its Own Right
Architecture is frozen music. ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Newly opened at the John F. Kennedy International Airport is the grand, futuristic TWA Hotel, reanimating the old TWA terminal—officially named the Trans World Flight Center—which had been lying dormant since 2005, before this beautiful, intense revivification.
Architect Eero Saarinen designed the terminal, which opened for service in 1962. Saarinen’s sculpted Gateway Arch was a familiar sight to me as I grew up in Southern Illinois at the outward stretch of the arch’s long shadow. The Arch was always the first herald of Saint Louis rising up over the horizon when we would drive to the city. My father promised a quarter to whoever could first spy the soaring, silver parabola.
Similar to Saarinen’s Arch, the main body of the TWA Hotel is curvilinear. There are no points, straight lines, or hard angles, only surges and swoops. The dominant colors are alabaster and scarlet.
Coming into a new space like this, full of light, shadows, and pools of red, can overwhelm the senses with beauty. It’s like making sense of a coral reef when you first come upon it snorkeling: what looks like chaos at first becomes a clear pattern the longer you observe. Once you take the time to catch your breath in the TWA Hotel, you will see the internal logic to the terminal’s design. The flight center is structured with two concourses that connect to the wings where the guest rooms are: like Fallopian tubes branching from a central womb. In the middle of the main terminal body, a raised bridge with a slight ascent converges to a point and reminds you of balance.
Mirroring one another across the terminal floor, Arrival and Departures boards flip cities and numbers like old scoreboards, making whirring sounds like shuffling cards at regular intervals. One floats above the Sunken Lounge, the terminal’s retro cocktail conversation pit. The effect of the sound of the boards is purring, peaceful, and reassuring.
Above stairs, in niches, and inside galleries, airline artifacts like TWA uniform collections, travel posters, and luggage tags inspire feelings of an era past, a mood of world-spanning, intercontinental travel and a cosmopolitan view. The Jet Age stuff, both in the museum-like exhibitions and also the fittings of the rooms, is angular and functional in comparison with Saarinen’s futuristic swoops: and while the artifacts may be dated, the architecture of the terminal is significantly not, but presages a future yet to be caught up to, timeless, ancient, and futuristic as the element of air.
The vibe of the place is multisensory and total, down to the upbeat, carefully-chosen soundtrack which resonates The Beatles and mod-era The Who throughout the atmosphere.
Some treasures lie outside the main terminal body and are worth seeking. A rooftop pool on a 10,000-square-foot observation deck offers an unobstructed view of the runway and planes, with the water rippling over the TWA logo adding to the sense of breathless exhilaration. You can take a dip and also fortify yourself at the open-air Pool Bar. Out on the tarmac, The Connie, a restored airplane that broke the transcontinental speed record in 1946, enjoys its second life as a simple, elegant cocktail bar: basically a lighted tube where drinks are mixed at one end, and where you can lounge in comfortable, vintage airline seats and even peer inside the cockpit.
The hotel is an oasis right next to Terminal 4, easily accessed by the elevator. It is a humane place, soft on the psyche if you have a layover at the airport. If you have some extra time at JFK, avail yourself of this place, either choosing an overnight or day stay, or simply by plugging in to recharge on one of the spacious benches upstairs. It is actually worth a trip on its own.
No right angles, and no rush. You can actually feel your heart rate slowing down. The terminal brings with it not only the look, but also the pacing of an earlier time, a former era. If you have ever driven out West on Route 66 and looked over the see mega-trucks roaring along I-40, the effect is similar: a reminder that we have the option of not letting things get so frenetic, and realizing that it doesn’t have to be that way. We have a choice to do things differently, and our quality of life is raised when we take it.