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Design

Escaping Reality Through the TWA Hotel

It’s now a fantasy-steeped hotel honoring the airport design of a bygone era, but the TWA Flight Center at New York’s JFK Airport was never quite real.
Eero Saarinen, pictured working on a model of his TWA Flight Center, created a stunning terminal at an airport where individual carriers used architecture as advertising for a new age of travel.
Eero Saarinen, pictured working on a model of his TWA Flight Center, created a stunning terminal at an airport where individual carriers used architecture as advertising for a new age of travel.Balthazar Korab/Library of Congress

It’s hard to imagine, but Idlewild—now John F. Kennedy—Airport in New York was briefly, in the mid-20th century, a rather pleasant place to visit. Not unlike the corporations that set up pavilions at World’s Fairs on the other side of Queens, private airlines were encouraged to design their own terminals here around a central public space, each airline declaring its brand through modern architecture. A 1955 plan for the budding airport led to the creation, initially, of seven terminal buildings surrounding a vast plaza with chapels, a see-through heating and cooling center, a reflective pool, and a fountain.

But passenger numbers soon exploded, thanks to the emergence of the wide-body jet. JFK’s annual passenger totals went from 3.5 million in 1956 to 11.5 million in 1962. By the end of the 1960s, it was the second-busiest airport in the country. Expansions, renovations, and alterations struggled to handle dramatic shifts in the industry (in particular, airline deregulation starting in the late ‘70s and tightened security after 9/11). Most of its facilities survived the century, but rarely with grace.