The former TWA terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport has reopened as a hotel lounge following extensive refurbishment – and it’s not the first airport building to reinvent itself.
Out of date and too small: That was the general consensus when it opened in 1962, given the dramatic rise in passenger numbers in the still young jet-set era. But aesthetically speaking, the Trans World Airlines (TWA) terminal at New York International was a foretaste of things to come: Like few other buildings, this architectural gem embodied the pioneering spirit of the early 1960s. U.S. president John F. Kennedy was still alive, people felt electrified by the technical advances of the day, and mass tourism was in its first, innocent bloom; and so the sweeping, upbeat architecture of the terminal, its silhouette emulating that of a giant bird on the wing, immediately became a symbol of the zeitgeist.
TWA’s owner back then, tycoon and film producer Howard Hughes, was obsessed with flying and speed. In Hollywood, he had learned that it wasn’t enough to have a good idea, you had to realize it with grand gestures. So he hired the Finnish-born architect and designer Eero Saarinen, whose Gateway Arch in St. Louis, a vertiginously tall concrete portal, had drawn Hughes’ attention to its creator. In May 1962, just a few months after the architect’s death and a year and a half before the airport was named for Kennedy, Saarinen’s Terminal 5 was opened.
The terminal was listed as a historic building in 1994. When TWA disappeared from the market in 2001, it was closed down. Since then, it has been used at most as a movie set, for Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, for instance. Now, with a meticulous eye for detail, the architects of Beyer Blinder Belle have restored the old TWA terminal to its former glory and tastefully transformed it into the lobby of the new TWA Hotel.
This is by no means the only instance of an iconic airport building being repurposed. Although Ernst Sagebiel’s Neoclassical terminal building at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin has been waiting for a viable concept since the airport closed in 2008, the airfield is now a popular recreational space – one of the largest urban open spaces of its kind. Hong Kong’s old airport, Kai Tak – notorious for breakneck landing maneuvers involving flying a tight right curve over Kowloon and tropical winds on the runway – was reopened in 2013 as a cruise terminal designed by architect Norman Foster. And today, there’s a park at the foot of the shade-giving Browning Hangar belonging to closed Mueller Airport in Austin, Texas.
When it comes to reinventing a legendary airport building, though, the TWA Hotel surpasses all other projects on an aesthetic level. The ambition to carry a formative era of design and aviation into the present day is wholly apparent, down to the last detail. The expansive, curving hall opens out beneath its winged roof, and there are no straight lines and hardly a right angle anywhere in the building. Whites and grays are offset by a deep chili red – a nod to TWA’s corporate color. The window front once gave onto the runway where, in 1965, screaming fans watched the Beatles emerge from a TWA plane. Today, a Lockheed Constellation has been turned into a bar there. The transformation was undertaken in conjunction with Lufthansa, whose history is closely linked to that of the legendary prop plane. In 1957, Lufthansa took delivery of the first “Connies” – the type of plane in which Lufthansa introduced its Senator service in First Class on flights from Germany to New York. The hotel will also feature a conference room dedicated to Lufthansa. In the lobby, a concierge in pilot uniform provides information, and at the check-in counters, guests are welcomed by staff in nostalgic crew uniforms. Classic 1960s cocktails are served in the semi-circular Sunken Lounge furnished with Saarinen’s Tulip Stools and Pedestal Tables. At the Café Paris, Michelin-starred chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten took inspiration from the menus of TWA’s Royal Ambassador First Class.
The walnut-paneled hotel rooms are not inside the terminal, but occupy two new, soundproofed, seven-story extensions sporting mid-20th-century designs such as Womb Chairs, dial telephones and Martini bars. Oh, and the price of a room? It’s quite affordable, starting at 249 dollars (roughly 220 euros) a night. The hotel even offers short stays of just a few hours. Visitors only looking to freshen up will be well rewarded to make their way up to the infinity pool on the roof of Saarinen’s terminal with its spectacular view of the runway.
KAI TAK AIRPORT
Notorious for its tricky approach, this airport was closed down in 1998. In 2013, a cruise terminal opened here, designed by star architect Norman Foster. The new complex has a rooftop park offering a spectacular panoramic view of Hong Kong.
Areas of Austin’s decommissioned Mueller Airport were turned into a park with a jogging trail, open-air stage and a small lake. On hot days, the Browning Hangar affords boule players and food trucks some very welcome shade.
Since closing down in 2008, the airfield and airport buildings have been used for events like the Lollapalooza music festival in 2015. One of the world’s biggest urban open spaces, Tempelhofer Feld is as popular with tourists as it is with Berliners.