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The Problem With Fetishizing Midcentury Modernism

Housed in Finnish architect Eero Saarinen’s landmarked 1962 TWA Flight Center at JFK International Airport, the forthcoming TWA Hotel is an homage to the midcentury era of Jet Age optimism—and blithe indifference.

Around this time next year, travelers passing through JFK International Airport’s notorious chaotic halls will have an incentive to linger in Terminal 5, with the opening of the splashy new TWA Hotel–a 512-room property centered around an extensive restoration of the landmark TWA Flight Center, the midcentury jewel completed by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen in 1962.

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And its developers, MCR/Morse Development, are intent on creating an entire experience pegged to that specific year–a zeitgeist-defining time, CEO Tyler Morse said, embodying an optimistic moment in American innovation and design. Both the interiors and exteriors of the iconic structure were deemed a New York City Landmark in 1994, and joined the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, but had long sat vacant in disuse since 2002, when the once-major airline filed for bankruptcy and was acquired by American Airlines.

For its effort, MCR is the developer and lead investor for a massive public-private partnership with JetBlue (currently the sole airline at Terminal 5), and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

At a preview of the hotel’s interior design this week, still under construction ahead of the spring 2019 launch, flight attendants in vintage mini-dress uniforms and pilots in aviator sunglasses greeted guests with trays of retro candies and sweets: sleeves of Necco wafers, boxes of Good & Plenty, Sugar Daddy lollipops, candy cigarettes, and cans of Tab soda, which, if you can believe, was short for “Totally Artificial Beverage,” says Morse–a scientific triumph itself, brought to you by food chemists, that was then heartily embraced. It was a surprisingly convenient metaphor for the way midcentury modernism has been mined and repackaged for contemporary consumers, featuring only the sweetest parts.

[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]

The Excitement Of Travel, Revisited

When he completed the gull-wing-shaped terminal in 1962, Saarinen had said he intended to “express the drama and excitement of travel.” Once restored, MCR hopes the TWA Hotel will conjure an experience for a time when air travel was still a luxurious novelty (instead of, you know, a crowded, subpar commute in which you can get dragged off a plane for sitting in a double-booked seat, at no fault of your own). To that end, MCR is doubling down on  the project’s greatest asset–Saarinen’s architectural jewel, the swooping, aviary shell-concrete headhouse of the original TWA Flight Center–by recreating it down to the smallest details.

The TWA Hotel project recalls another of Saarinen’s designs, the former U.S. Embassy in London, which is currently being refurbished by architect David Chipperfield into the 137-room Mayfair Hotel. Could hospitality be the monied answer to breathing new life into historic structures? Here, the developers are less concerned with the new than with the old. Bright red carpet, inspired by the terminal’s original interiors and branding, will line the main hall and iconic flight tubes–made famous in the 2002 movie Catch Me If You Can–that will connect to either of the two newly constructed hotel wings.

“We envisioned a refined guest experience in dialogue with Saarinen’s masterpiece, a serene refuge from which to enjoy views onto one of the busiest airports in the world,” said Michael Suomi, principal at Stonehill Taylor, the firm that designed the guest rooms, by statement. “Ultimately, we wanted the TWA room to help create the level of excitement for and pride in aviation that travelers once felt during the rise of the industry.”

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[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]

Authenticity Matters

As we saw in a press unveiling of a model unit this week, each of the snug units will include authentic Womb armchairs and Tulip side tables designed by Eero Saarinen for Knoll (still in production today), and vintage details like old-school rotary telephones, walnut and brushed-brass accents. Every room will also come with a well-stocked martini bar–but of course–along with spacious vanity-style bathrooms with bubble lights, terrazzo flooring, and TWA-branded toiletries. Beds will be oriented to take in floor-to-ceiling views of the airport runways, and the developers boast a heavy-duty, seven-layer glass cladding made to soundproof the rooms. Morse says it’s the thickest glass curtain wall that has ever been used in construction today, second only to the new U.S. Embassy building that is currently being constructed in London.

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The hotel’s bars, restaurants, meeting and event spaces, and additional amenities will be housed in a restored 200,000-square-foot headhouse that Robert A.M. Stern once deemed “the Grand Central of the Jet Age.” The open-air museum and homage to all things 1962 will also include an actual museum devoted to the Jet Age, as well as a lounge housed inside a parked Lockheed Constellation. Additional amenities include an observation deck and roof pool, (though the first thought that came to mind was: Is the air quality at JFK worthy of a roof deck?).

[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]

The Dangers Of Nostalgia

While the overall preservation efforts–headed by Beyer Blinder Belle, the architecture firm that also restored the Met Breuer–are laudable, a straight homage to the Jet Age of the Sixties seems a bit misplaced and even a little eerie. Living in an era of Trump, after all, we’re provoked to see things critically on a daily basis, while sloganeering to “Make America Great Again” has underlined the dangerous subtexts and inherent prejudices of historic nostalgia. I couldn’t help but feel that the hotel was looking to create a bubble of escapism into a feel-good era of futurism that wasn’t so feel-good for everyone.

The year 1962 may have been one of great optimism, glamour, and innovation for the U.S., as Morse argues–Jackie Kennedy was First Lady, John Glenn orbited the Earth, and The Beatles were pioneering pop music–and yet it was, lest we forget, also a time of great social unrest. The civil rights movement was ongoing, and the country was two years away from signing the Civil Rights Act, which effectively outlawed segregation in businesses. In 1962, you could also still smoke indoors and on planes (a detail MCR acknowledges with boxes of candy cigarettes, and twee mini-pencils designed to look like cigarettes). New York’s Idlewild airport hadn’t yet been renamed after JFK, who was still living, and it would be several years until the women’s revolution began to brew. Not to mention, the Space Race that led to the U.S. moon landing in 1969 wasn’t just innovation for the sake of it, but an extension of Cold War military flex.

The recumbent luxury of the early Sixties may seduce us to put on rose-colored glasses and enjoy lounging in the canonical furniture, but that period-room fantasy may not be so easy to swallow in 2018. Even Mad Men made a point to humanize the period by underlining the social struggles and cultural clashes between complacency and crisis.

Perhaps the year-specific theme may be part of just an initial marketing reach–here’s hoping the amenities, come next year’s grand opening, will feel more modern, in the truest sense of the word, and less the way of a kitschy off-Broadway production on loop. As a business strategy and investment, it is understandable to want to ground your largest asset, but there are tasteful limits.

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When asked if the era-faithful reproductions would extend to the hotel’s six restaurants and eight bars, for one, Morse half-jokingly and blithely assured, “It will be desirable and palatable.”

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About the author

Aileen Kwun is a writer based in New York City. She is the author of Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations On a Lifetime in Architecture and Design (Princeton Architectural Press), and was previously a senior editor at Dwell and Surface.

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